Rorate Caeli

Benson at 100
"The Royal Catholic Church: Ruthless with heresy and sin, kind with the heretic and the sinner"

"The Church will yield to the world,
so long as her Divine Right remains intact."
For our third post celebrating the centenary of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (October 19, 1914), some reflections from his Paradoxes of Catholicism (conferences and sermons preached mostly in New York in 1912 and in Rome in 1913, and published not long before his death). They are reflections on the apparent contradiction between our meek and sweet Lord and His holy People, the Church, described as unyielding and rigid -- shockingly, today, even by some Catholic pastors themselves, even at a Synod!

This reflection, preached on a Palm Sunday, is perfect as a meditation on the feast of the upcoming Sunday, Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, and the Royal people we ourselves are in his Royal Bride, ruthless with sin, infinitely kind with the sinner.

Blessed are the meek. -- MATT. V. 4.

The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. -- MATT. Xi. 12.

WE have already considered the Church's relations towards such things as wealth and human influence and power, how she will sometimes use and sometimes disdain them. Let us now penetrate a little deeper and understand the spirit that underlies and explains this varying attitude of hers.

I. (i) It has been charged against Christianity in general, and therefore implicitly and supremely against the Church that was for so long its sole embodiment and is still, alone, its adequate representative, that it has fostered virtues which retard progress. Progress, in the view of the German philosopher who explicitly made this charge, is merely natural both in its action and its end; and Nature, as we are well aware, knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion or tenderness: on the contrary she moves from lower to higher forms by forces that are their precise opposite. The wounded stag is not protected by his fellows, but gored to death; the old wolf is torn to pieces, the sick lion wanders away to die of starvation, and all these instincts, we are informed, have for their object the gradual improvement of the breed by the elimination of the weak and ineffective. So should it be, he tells us, with man, and the extreme Eugenists echo his teaching. Christianity, on the other hand, deliberately protects the weak and teaches that the sacrifice of the strong is supreme heroism. Christianity has raised hospitals and refuges for the infirm, seeking to preserve those very types which Nature, if she had her way, would eliminate. Christianity, then, is the enemy of the human race and not its friend, since Christianity has retarded, as no other religion has ever succeeded in retarding, the appearance of that superman whom Nature seeks to evolve. . . . It is scarcely to be wondered at that the teacher of such a doctrine himself died insane.

A parallel doctrine is taught largely to-day by persons who call themselves practical and businesslike. Meekness and gentleness and compassion, they tell their sons, are very elegant and graceful virtues for those who can afford them, for women and children who are more or less sheltered from the struggle of life, and for feeble and ineffective people who are capable of nothing else. But for men who have to make their own way in the world and intend to win success there, a more stern code is necessary; from these there is demanded such a rule of action as Nature herself dictates. Be self-confident and self-assertive then, not meek. Remember that the weakness of your neighbour is your own opportunity. Take care of number one and let the rest take care of themselves. A man does not go into the stock exchange or into commerce in order to exhibit Christian virtues there, but business qualities. In a word, Christianity, so far as it affects material or commercial or political progress, is a weakness rather than a strength, an enemy rather than a friend.

(ii) But if, on the one side, the gentleness and non-resistance inculcated by Christianity form the material of one charge against the Church, on the other side, no less, she is blamed for her violence and intransigence. Catholics are not yielding enough, we are told, to be true followers of the meek Prophet of Galilee, not gentle enough to inherit the blessing which He pronounced. On the contrary there are no people so tenacious, so obstinate, and even so violent as these professed disciples of Jesus Christ. See the way, for example, in which they cling to and insist upon their rights; the obstacles they raise, for example, to reasonable national schemes of education or to a sensible system in the divorce courts. And above all, consider their appalling and brutal violence as exhibited in such institutions as that of the Index and Excommunication, the fierceness with which they insist upon absolute and detailed obedience to authority, the ruthlessness with which they cast out from their company those who will not pronounce their shibboleths. It is true that in these days they can only enforce their claims by spiritual threatenings and penalties, but history shows us that they would do more if they could. The story of the racks and the fires of the Inquisition shows plainly enough that the Church once used, and therefore, presumably, would use again if she could, carnal weapons in her spiritual warfare. Can anything be more unlike the gentle Spirit of Him Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; of Him Who bade men to learn of Him, for He was meek and lowly of heart, and so find rest to their souls?

Here, then, is the Paradox, and here are two characteristics of the Catholic Church: that she is at once too meek and too self-assertive, too gentle and too violent. It is a paradox exactly echoed by our Divine Lord Himself, Who in the Upper Chamber bade His disciples who had no sword to sell their cloaks and buy them, and Who yet, in the garden of Gethsemane, commanded the one disciple who had taken Him at His word to put up the sword into its sheath, telling him that they who took the sword should perish by it. It is echoed yet again in His action, first in taking the scourge into His own Hand, in the temple courts, and then in baring His shoulders to that same scourge in the hands of others. How, then, is this Paradox to be reconciled?

II. The Church, let us remind ourselves again, is both Human and Divine.

(i) She consists of human persons, and those persons are attached both to one another and to the world outside by a perfectly balanced system of human rights known as the Law of Justice. This Law of Justice, though coming indeed from God, is, in a sense, natural and human; it exists to some extent in all societies, as well as being closely defined and worked out in the Old Law given on Sinai. It is a Law which men could have worked out, at any rate in its main principles, by the light of reason only, unaided by Revelation, and it is a Law, further, so fundamental that no Revelation could conceivably ever outrage or set it aside.

At the coming of Christ into the world, however, Supernatural Charity came with Him. The Law of Justice still remained; men still had their rights on which they might insist, still had their rights which no Christian may refuse to recognize. But such was the torrent of Divine generosity which Christ exhibited, so overwhelming was the Vision which He revealed of the supernatural charity of God towards men, that a set of ideals sprang into life such as the world had never dreamed of; more, Charity came with such power that her commands actually overruled in many instances the feeble claims of Justice, so that she bade men henceforward to forgive, for example, not merely according to Justice, but according to her own Divine nature, to forgive unto seventy times seven, to give good measure, heaped up and running over, and not the bare minimum which men had merely earned.

It was from this advent of Charity, then, that all these essentially Christian virtues of generosity and meekness and self-sacrifice sprang which Nietzsche condemned as hostile to material progress.

For, from henceforth, if a man take thy coat, let him take thy cloak also; if he will compel thee to go with him one mile, go two; if he strike thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also. The Law of Natural Justice is transcended and the Law of Charity and Sacrifice reigns instead. Resist not evil; do not insist always, that is to say, on your natural rights; give men more than their due, and be yourself content with less. Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and find rest to your souls. Forgive one another your trespasses with the same generous charity with which God has forgiven and will forgive you yours. Judge not and you shall not be judged. Do not, in personal matters, insist upon bare justice for yourself, but act on that scale and by those principles by which God Himself has dealt with you.

Meekness, then, is undoubtedly a Christian virtue. Sometimes it is obligatory, sometimes it is but a Counsel of Perfection; it stands, in any case, high among those ideals which it has been the glory of Christianity to create.

(ii) But there are other elements in life besides the human and the natural, beyond those personal rights and claims which a Christian may, if he is aiming at perfection, set aside out of charity. The Church is Divine as well as Human.

For the Church has entrusted to her, besides the rights of men, which may be sacrificed by their possessors, the rights and claims of God, which none but He can set aside. He has given into her keeping, for example, a Revelation of truths and principles which, springing out of His own Nature or of His Will, are as immutable and eternal as Himself. And it is precisely in defence of these truths and principles that the Church exhibits that which the world calls intransigence and Jesus Christ violence.

Here, for example, is the right of a baptized Catholic child to be educated in his religion, or rather, the right of God Himself to teach that child in the manner He has ordained. Here is the revealed truth that marriage is indissoluble; here that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Now these are not human rights or opinions at all -- rights and opinions which men, urged by charity or humility, can set aside or waive in the face of opposition. They rest on an entirely different basis; they are, so to speak, the inalienable possessions of God; and it would neither be charity nor humility, but sheer treachery, for the Church to exhibit meekness or pliancy in matters such as these, given to her as they are, not to dispose of, but to guard intact. On the contrary here, exactly, comes the command, He that hath not, let him sell his cloak and buy a sword, for here comes the line between the Divine and the Human; let all personal possessions go, all merely natural rights and claims be yielded, and let a sword take their place. For here is a matter that must be resisted, even unto blood.

The Catholic Church then is, and always will be, violent and intransigent when the rights of God are in question. She will be absolutely ruthless, for example, towards heresy, for heresy affects not personal matters on which Charity may yield, but a Divine right on which there must be no yielding. Yet, simultaneously, she will be infinitely kind towards the heretic, since a thousand human motives and circumstances may come in and modify his responsibility. At a word of repentance she will readmit his person into her treasury of souls, but not his heresy into her treasury of wisdom; she will strike his name eagerly and freely from her black list of the rebellious, but not his book from the pages of her Index. She exhibits meekness towards him and violence towards his error; since he is human, but her Truth is Divine.

It is, then, from a modern confusion of thought with regard to the realms of the Divine and the Human that the amazing inability arises, on the world's part, to understand the respective principles on which the Catholic Church acts in these two and utterly separate departments. The world considers it reasonable for a country to defend its material possessions by the sword, but intolerant and unreasonable for the Church to con demn, resisting even unto blood, principles which she considers erroneous or false. The Church, on the other hand, urges her children again and again to yield rather than to fight when merely material possessions are at stake, since Charity permits and sometimes even commands men to be content with less than their own rights, and yet again, when a Divine truth or right is at stake, here she will resist unfaltering and undismayed, since she cannot be "charitable" with what is not her own; here she will sell her cloak and buy that sword which when the dispute was on merely temporal matters, she thrust back again into its sheath.

To-day* as Christ rides into Jerusalem we see, as in a mirror, this Paradox made plain. Thy King cometh to thee, meek. Was there ever so mean a Procession as this? Was there ever such meekness and charity? He Who, as His personal right, is attended in heaven by a multitude on white horses, now, in virtue of His Humanity, is content with a few fishermen and a crowd of children. He to Whom, in His personal right, the harpers and the angels make eternal music is content, since He has been made Man for our sakes, with the discordant shoutings of this crowd. He Who rode on the Seraphim and came flying on the wings of the wind sits on the colt of an ass. He comes, meek indeed, from the golden streets of the Heavenly Jerusalem to the foul roads of the Earthly, laying aside His personal rights since He is that very Fire of Charity by which Christians relinquish theirs.

But, for all that, it is riding that thy King cometh to thee. . . . He will not relinquish His inalienable claim and He will have nothing essential left out. He has His royal escort, even though a ragged one; He will have His spearmen, even though their spears be only of palm; He will have His heralds to proclaim Him, however much the devout Pharisees may be offended by their proclamation; He will ride into His own Royal City, even though that City casts Him out, and He will have His Coronation, even though it be with thorns. So, too, the Catholic Church advances through the ages.

In merely human rights and personal matters again and again she will yield up all that she has, making, it may be, but one protest for Justice' sake and then no more. And she will urge her children to do the same. If the world will let her have no jewels, then she will put glass beads in her monstrance, and for marble she will use plaster, and tinsel for gold.

But she will have her Procession and insist upon her Royalty. It may seem as poor and as mean and as tawdry as the entrance of Christ Himself through the royal gate; for she will yield up all that the world demands of her, so long as her Divine Right itself remains intact. She will issue her orders, though few be found to obey them; she will cast out from her the rebellious who question her authority, and cleanse her Temple Courts even though with a scourge at which men mock. She will give up all that is merely human, if the world will have it so, and will resist not evil if it merely concerns herself. But there is one thing which she will not renounce, one thing she will claim, even with violence and "intransigence," and that is the Royalty with which God Himself has crowned her.