Is It Conceivable ?
By DR. W. E. ORCHARD
BY the Conversion of England we mean nothing less than the general acceptance by our fellow-countrymen of the full Catholic Faith, with, of cotirse, the restoration of the accepted Church of this land to full communion with Rome.
Is such an idea within the bounds of reasonable hope? In the opinion of many, Catholic as well as Protestant, it is not; and what the one takes to be impossible the other is determined to make sure that it shall be proved so. For the militant Protestant, while he regards Rome as a dreadful menace, believes that England is "soundly Protestant," and only needs to be awakened to the danger, to make any such conversion contemptuously unlikely. Thus the very discussion of our subject might only hinder what might otherwise be expected from a renewal of endeavour and the dedication of a crusade.
Yet can any faithful Catholic shrink from the challenge, still less regard victory as a forlorn hope? At Benediction we are bidden constantly to pray for the conversion of England : it would surely be irreligious, as well as absurd, to pray for the impossible. Nevertheless it is easy to understand why it should be considered to be so difficult as to be regarded as at least, according to all human calculation, exceedingly remote.
We can look for no mass conversion such as was possible in earlier days, or may still hope among primitive peoples. It would be some advance if our nation accepted the Catholic faith, if only nominally, for there would then be something fundamental we could appeal to, argue from and build upon. Nevertheless, it is more than ever necessary that we should strive for a conversion in which the fruits of faith in personal character were manifest; and its implications for the social order clearly realised. For whatever our countrymen have lost through their lack of agreement about revelation, its content, interpretation and guardianship, they have an almost impatient demand that conduct must agree with creed.
Whatever the Reformers may have taught, their professed followers are now insistent that besides faith in the mind there must be charity in the heart and justice in the social order. Indeed the general attitude to " faith and works " today indicates that we shall have to argue back, from what is seen to be desirable. in individual character and necessary in the social order to reliance upon supernatural grace and the foundations of revealed truth, if an.y.thing, shfficient -or stable is to be attained. But why should that be considered any more impossible than -the task which must also be undertaken of working the other way? for have we not also to undertake a corollary, and indeed somewhat confusing task, that of bringing many merely nominal Catholics to sec the need for a consistent character and a social order congruous with the faith they profess?
Nevertheless careful historical observers are inclined to regard the conversion of England, apart from some divine miracle, as humanely inconceivable; and that because they believe the Protestantism of this country is too entrenched, embittered as it is by historical memories, however biased they may be, while it is buttressed by the fear, however baseless, that a Catholic ascendancy in this country would mean the loss of political independence and the coercion of the individual conscience But all this is unduly pessimistic, it is founded on a superficial analysis of Protestantism; for, in this country, especially, Protestantism embraces many diverse elements, and derives its resultant resistance from a strange mixture of motives.
Even if all Protestants can sometimes be united by appeals to fear, there are other appeals to fear that might operate to separate them : namely, the fear of losing all faith, and now the modern menace of militant atheism openly committed to the crushing out of all religion whatsoever. And even if we must include as Protestants all who, for whatever reason, reject the rule of Rome, we should yet give due weight to those who hate the very word Protestant, as well as take count or those elements in Protestantism which still share common ground with ,us in matters of faith or devotion.
Stiff more should we recognise that Protestantism as a whole is moving in two directions: one towards recovering Catholic doctrines and practices which were abandoned at the Reformation; and the other a definite decline not only into vagueness but towards definite unbelief. It is this that gives to the present hour a promise that may soon pass away, and an urgency that may soon be too late.
On the other hand, what is perhaps an equally superficial conclusion from statistics may rest too content with the calculation that within quite measurable time England will be wholly Catholic. Some derive considerable satisfaction from the conversions recorded each year, which, for a decade now, have registered a steady average of 12,000. It would take some milleniums to convert England, if this were the only source of increase; but other statistics may be appealed to as even more hopeful.
It has been estimated, to take extreme figures at both ends, that whereas there were only half a million Catholics in England a hundred years ago, there are now five millions. If the Catholic population goes on thus increasing by ten -times every hundred years, the date when England will be entirely Catholic may then be calculated as much nearer and quite certain.
These figures are, however, curiously crossed by others. Some estimate that if we gain 12,000 a year by conversions, we lose, perhaps, as many or even more by lapses.
There is, however, a much more imminent fulfilment of our hopes, calculable from recent scientific statistics that indicate, owing to the progressive decline in population, in a hundred years' time there will be only four million people all told in Great Britain; which from other calculations might be assessed would consist wholly of Catholics! Apart from our outlook, melancholy enough from other aspects, now this would be a drop in our preaent numbers. And how many more are 'we going to drop in those intervening years through the defection of those Catholics who find the Church's -teaching on marriage and its dependent questions too hard for them; and how many under the pressure of scepticism and unbelief?
Moreover this country has been nominally Catholic before, and yet changed in a few decades to being predominantly Protestant; while we have witnessed a country once known as " Holy " Russia swept into professed atheism almost at the word of command. Our number of converts even dropped last year by 500; and there arc those, neither prejudiced nor uninformed, who whisper Abyssinia and Spain as the cause; compelling disquieting reflections if at all true.