What British Catholics Lost by the Reformation
Re-Learning From Others What We Have Forgotten
THE use of the word " Reunion " to indicate the..healing of the schism which took place in the sixteenth century is subject to a misunderstanding which may occasion bitter disappointment. The root of that misunderstanding seems to consist in a failure to realise the organic character of the Catholic Church. What many visualise as schism is the breaking up of the visible Body, and Reunion, according to this view of things, is the reintegration of the scattered fragments. Being organic. however, the wholeness of the Church could not be broken up in the way suggested without destroying its very life. That it should maintain the integrity it had at the beginning of its history is the very condition of its continued existence: disintegration would have meant death. As it did not grow by additions from outside but was (like the body of an infant) entire from the start, so its parts cannot be, without destroying the organism as such, detached. What did happen Was that certain persons severed their connection with the Body, but that is a different matter. The Church was not constituted by the coming together of individuals; it existed already in the Person of Him Who is the Life of the Mystical Body. Were it reduced to its original proportions, it would still remain an integral whole. What has perhaps contributed to the misunderstanding is the fact that those who seceded carried away with them certain values derived from the Church. This does not mean, however, that the parent Body was thereby denuded of those values. When children leaving home and setting up for themselves display hereditary traits, one does not assume that the father and mother have lost those traits. 4 AN HISTORICAL SURVEY IT will clarify the matter if we attempt to follow the historical process. That will mean going back to a time when those qualities which, later on, became associated with schismatic bodies were found fully functioning in the Catholic Church. In an instructive little volume by a non-Catholic authority entitled The People's Faith in the Time of Wyclif, we read : " The romantic and Catholic ' elements in the medieval Church no one to-day is likely to forget. but it is not superfluous to recall its evangelical and its puritan qualities, its sanctity, its commonsense, and its rationalism; to emphasise the fact that not only one half of modern Christianity but the whole has its roots in medieval religion." And the writer concludes : " The medieval Church is the mother of us all." It is easy to confirm the truth of this assertion by a reference to the writings of the fourteenth century. Mr. Bernard Lord Manning, from whom the above quotation is taken, himself compares the preachers of that time to those of the Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century and the lyrics of Richard Rolle to Charles Wesley's hymns. Even more striking is the parallel he draws between Langland, the author of Piers Plowman's Vision and John Bunyan. Those characteristics which we have come to think of as peculiarly Protestant—love of the Bible, the tendency to moralise, the humour and pathos of the popular preacher and many other traits—are here found harmonised and chastened in the context of the Catholic Church as parts of her normal equipment. Even the weaknesses of English Christianity as manifested at a later date, its dislike of ecclesiastical organisation and the discipline of exact thought, are here. In fact, the fourteenth century shows the Englishman thoroughly at home in the Catholic Church.
TRAGEDY AND then came disruption. What followed is best told in the words of Mr. Christopher Dawson. In an Essay on Langland, speaking of Wyclif, he wrote: " For the English Church never really recovered from the crisis of the fourteenth century. The next age was an age of moral and spiritual decline. . . Only in the following century did the movement of Catholic reform reappear with Colet and Fisher and More. But it was then too late to avert the crisis. The English way diverged from the Catholic way and ran astray into the waste lands of sectarianism. The spiritual successors of Langland are to be found not in the Catholic Church, nor even in the Church of England, but among the Puritans and the rebels, with Fox and Bunyan and Whitfield and Blake. But this popular tradition of English tradition which was divorced from Catholic unity and even from the national unity after the sixteenth century already exists in its purest and most unadulterated form in the work of Langland. He shows us what English religion ;night have been, if it had not been broken by schism and narrowed by sectarianism and heresy." As we have seen, this does not mean that the Church was deprived of the qualities which schismatic bodies had taken with them. They were in abeyance, but not lost. The branches had been cut from the tree carrying with them valuable fruit, but the root and trunk, capable of producing an indefinite number of crops, still remained. Its essential integrity had been by no means impaired.
CATHOLIC IGNORANCE UNFORTUNATELY Catholics are largely indifferent to this earlier phase of English Religion. They have been taught to regard Chaucer as representative of the fourteenth century. The voices of those serious-minded men and women who spoke out of the heart of England have hccome well-nigh inaudible. When they recovered the Faith of their Fathers it was largely from the lips of men trained abroad. The Reformation created a great gulf which the historical imagination has found it difficult to bridge. One of the consequences of this is that we have failed to recognise as our own the sectarian values which were originally derived from the Catholicism of an older England. A Bible-reading Nonconformist, if such still exists, instead of reminding us of medieval familiarity with Holy Scripture. seems something alien and therefore to be regarded with suspicion. A Methodist preacher holding forth at a street corner, instead of recalling the medieval friar, merely strikes us as an example of the way in which Protestantism vulgarises religion. Or our reaction may be one of admiration followed by attempts at imitation. This applies specially to social institutions and activities. ", Why can't we, too, have something like that?" we ask, and forthwith proceed to borrow from others in a crude form tainted with nineteenth century liberalism institutions which we might have developed easily from the social ideals preached five centuries ago by William Langland. We know more about Trade Unions than we do about the Guild System. even though this, in its corporative form, is reappearing in our own times. If we know anything about medieval art, medieval plays, medieval teaching concerning usury and similar subjects, the knowledge, to a considerable extent, is derived through Anglican channels. Anglo-Catholicism has a parallel movement in Catholic Anglicanism. Even our acquaintance with the Catholic mysticism of the Middle Ages goes back, in the majority of cases, to our reading of books written or edited by non-Catholic authors such as the late Evelyn Underhill. It is as though a boy were to acquire a knowledge of his native language from a foreigner speaking it with an alien accent instead of from his own parents. Surely the best method is to go to the original sources for ourselves, especially as it is we who alone possess the key to unlock their treasures.
DEVELOP OUR OWN RESOURCES THE only way to bring about what is called " Reunion " is to recover that integral Catholicism which existed in the Middle Ages. We shall not get rid of sectarianism until we can show that it is superfluous, possessing no features of Christianity which we ourselves do not possess, and that the plants taken from our garden blossom best in their native soil and in their original environment. Putting it somewhat crudely, we have got to beat the sectarian on his own ground and with his own weapons. Our first duty is to ourselves. that is to say, the manifestation of a full-orbed Catholicism in which the values now represented by different varieties of separatists will find their place in an harmonious whole possessing a compelling attraction. The process has already commenced. Some few years ago, a well-known Free Church minister in an article contributed to The Hibbert Journal wrote : " The supreme attraction of Rome is to be found not in its devotions or ceremonialism or the absolutism of its intellectual formulations. It is to be found in its ethical rigorism, in that very sphere which Puritan Protestantism thought to be its own." The words italicised illustrate something which is taking place in respect to other values. Those interested in social and economic questions are discovering that the Church knows more about these things than they do themselves. Philosophers are looking for guidance to the Scholastics. Evangelicalism is discovering the intimacy and warmth of Catholic devotions. Lovers of peace, despairing of statesmen, are turning to the Papacy. But the best indication of the way in which the Church is recovering its lost ground is the initiation of Catholic Action. The employment of the laity in the apostolate of the Hierarchy, the purpose of forming a Catholic mentality capable of dealing with the cultural, commercial and industrial problems of the day, the spirit of youthful enthusiasm displayed, the courageous faith which looks to the conquest, in Christ's name, of our entire civilization show that the " beleaguered garrison " is making a notable sortie which will probably become a definite offensive. But the remarkable thing about this movement is that, while it extends to the very fringe of the secular world, it is based on the supernatural and draws its inspiration from the unchanging dogmas of the Church. In every feature of its structure it bears the hall-mark of Catholicism. It functions not like a supplementary addition to, but as an organic part of, the Church.