Literary Witness 10

Sailing or Sinking?

By David Mills

Man needs a message from Outside, from Someone who knows the truth, because man doesn’t know enough and what he does know, he doesn’t know very well. But we need not only a message from outside but someone on the inside to make sure we get it, and get it right. “We do not,” noted G. K. Chesterton, “really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

The Catholic religion is that religion. “The Church is a living teacher, not a dead one,” Chesterton observed. “. . . . It has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophers say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all the creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive.”

My wife and I discovered that last truth when we were still Protestants, when we discovered the wisdom and the joys of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, particularly her rejection of contraception. No one we knew believed it, and almost everyone in our circle thought it the most bizarre idea possible. The most conservative of them might argue against the “contraceptive mentality,” but they would also insist that the Catholic Church’s absolute ban was simple-minded and cruel, and a relic of the past people frightened of change could not give up.

This was for us a big sign that the Catholic Church is who she said she is. We found a truth our world denied, and only one body that upheld it. As Chesterton said, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

And we saw this in her life as well. The Church kept doing the unpopular thing, which turned out to be the really wise thing. The Church, wrote Ronald Knox, “always seems to despise all measures which would promote her own survival. She takes some of her most devout sons, and bids them follow, in the priesthood, a life of celibacy; she takes many of those women whom you would expect to become the mothers of pious Catholic families, and immures them in the cloister. You would say she was pursuing a policy of ecclesiastical suicide.”

But of course she isn’t. Today, “when parenthood has ceased to be held in honour” and the population was declining, “it is the Catholic body more than any other which is resisting that tendency and breeding the Englishman of the next generation.” This is not, alas, so true anymore, but it is true that the Church continues to be fruitful in ways the world around her is not, as in the fertility of her moral thinking. Still, as Knox concluded, “it is the odour of life, not of death, that breathes from the Catholic Church.”

I think this explains why the Church so often looks to outsiders as if she’s sinking under the waves, fatally holed by some new discovery or abandoned by the average man who has moved on to other things. They expect her to sink because she is not doing what men expect her to do, because they do not have her word from outside. They don’t have all the facts, and judge the Church the way the man who knows only checkers might judge the play of the chess grandmaster.

“The Catholic Church is only just beginning,” Knox insisted. Her critics and her enemies saw her problems as signs that the sun was finally setting on her, but the problems she faced are in fact “only the clouds of early morning. . . . Believe me, if the hatred or the contempt of men could kill the Catholic faith, it would have been dead long ago.”

Catholicism “began as a religion of slaves; it has destroyed slavery,” he continued. “It was thrown to the lions in the amphitheatre; it has abolished the amphitheatre. . . . Its vitality is inexhaustible, not subject to our sensible laws of development and decay; the world has not felt the full strength of it as yet. Look about you and see how it still conquers men’s hearts; you have only mistaken the morning mists for the chill of sunset. Look about you; it is the dawn.”

Catholics throughout history must often have been tempted to feel, as we may be tempted now, that the Catholic Church is finally going down, that the waters are raising up the hull and the ship is listing to one side while the engines strain and many of the crew wander around looking lost. And yet she has always sailed on, looking newer than before.

She is, after all, the Church. “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world,” Chesterton declared. “We want a Church that will move the world.”

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Sailing or Sinking” appeared in the July/August issue 2010 of Lay Witness.

The quotations can be found in: Chesterton, Catholic Church and Conversion, chapter 5; Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, ; Chesterton, Conversion, chapter ; Knox, Occasional Sermons, section II, sermon 6; Knox, University and Anglican Sermons, section III, sermon 11; Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 9.