The church in history by Fr. Michael Richards
THE most rudimentary knowledge of history shows us how uncertain, unstable, erratic, violent and destructive human beings are, and yet we never stop being amazed and hurt when we ourselves or those closest to us behave in these characteristically human ways.
We. of course, and our relations and friends, are civilised, tamed, pacified, nice people to know; the nasty ones are on the other side of town or across the sea, and only intrude by way of television.
Clashes betiveen parents and children are one of the most frequently encountered causes of damaged feelings, the damage being aggravated because of the element of surprise: "Why should this happen to us?"
Unhappiness occurs, for example, when children "lose their faith" and do not share the religious fervour of their parents — converts perhaps who become alarmed and despondent at seeing all their labours and sacrifices apparently being thrown away. But this is one of the commonest of human experiences belonging to the ordinary pattern of human life; it is not necessarily provoked by the special problems connected with religion, faith, or the behaviour of the Church, although the conflict may take on a "religious" form.
In the first part of the nineteenth century, Evangelical parents who had worked devotedly for conversions and for social reform, led by the inspiration of men and women like William Wilberforce and Hannah More, often saw their children lapse into unbelief or else take themselves off to Rome.
Many are the biographies and novels of Victorian times which recount the changes of belief of those who moved away from the convictions and pieties of their parents, The shift from one generation to another here involve d specifically religious changes, which could not but be interpreted by the parents as a falling-away.
But this happened among the non-religious and anti-religious as well. An article by Susan Budd of the University of Southampton in that highly professional and hard-headed journal of historical studies, Past and Present, dealing with "The Loss of Faith in England, 1850-1950," has provided evidence of the same break from one generation to another occurring among secularists.
The secular movement took shape in the 1850s and reached a peak in the 1880s with about 6,000 members, continuing, though with declining strength, to the present day. Those actively engaged in the secularist cause came from the lower middle and working classes.
Their meetings a n d periodical literature reveal a pattern of life similar in many ways to that of a religious sect: the conversion (in this case a loss of faith, followed by positive adherence to the secularist cause), a life dedicated to proving the rightness of this cause and the moral and political benefits to be derived from it, and an edifying death-bed which was the final demonstration of the adequacy of atheist beliefs.
There was no need, they claimed, for the fear of death and hell as a support of morality. Religion, which played upon these fears. was a blight on human happiness. Religious people claimed that no atheist could face death with peace and equanimity; the obituaries published in the secularist journals proved them wrong.
The analogy with religious belonging can be extended also to include disaffiliation, the break-away in the second generation. As Susan Budd points out, "rebelling against a father is apparent in some of the more detailed biographies" of secularists, and. more revealingly still (since this kind of psychological information is not often available to us), "it was rare for families to be active in the movement for more than one generation."
It would be most interesting to know more about the family conversion pattern in English Catholicism. There is no reason to expect that it does not follow the same pattern as that found among Evangelicals and Secularists. And there would be no reason for surprise or alarm if it were in fact found that we tend to behave from one generation to another in the same way; we should simply have to recognise a fact of human nature.
Only if we think of the Church as a people. tribe or clan of a purely natural kind, into which we have a moral duty to be patriotically loyal, can we possibly be put out by a discovery of this kind. There are, of course, many Catholics who go on thinking of the Church in this way; but it is really a pagan or Old Testament outlook, not a New Testament one.
Salvation is not handed on with our genes; it requires a free response to an individual calling. Each one has to go to the Father in the way God wishes for him and in the way he or she accepts and chooses. We cannot reflect too often on the fact that Our Lord himself told his parents that he had to do the work of His Father, not that which they might be expecting him to do.
The Church is the place where each of us works out his own salvation. not the salvation any other human being, even our mothers and fathers, may wish for us.
And it is the place where the break from one generation to another may be accomplished. not through destruction and unhappiness, but through that personal growth which combines separateness and relationships. As we become ourselves, we come closer to others, not further away from them.
Properly understood, the Church does bridge the generation gap; but only if we allow it to work in God's way, and do not bring it down to the level of our own human desires for possession, domination and security.