The Battle of the Churches in England

by Unknown

The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, for January, 1851, contains a great article on the controversies occasioned by the recent movements of the Roman Catholics in Great Britain. It is very long (making sixty pages), and very able. Reviewing the battle, from an unusual, and to most people perhaps a not very accessible, point of view, it throws a startling light on many matters forgotten or ignored by the more immediate combatants. It may, therefore, be perused with interest and advantage by partisans of every shade. Protestant and Catholic will find their account in it, especially as helping them to information of which they are greatly deficient—a knowledge of each other's strong points, as well as their weak ones. There is much in the views of the writer, with which we cannot ourselves concur; but we are not insensible of the force and precision with which he has mapped out a large part of the field, and given saliency to some of the great principles at stake; which it is the natural tendency of discussions, involving so much of the conventional and formulistic, calamitously to obscure. The battle in the foreground may be about candlesticks, surplices, and genuflexions. But there are involved many things infinitely more vital, as the author of this "Battle of the Churches" will be admitted to have illustrated with great success. Many ponderous volumes might be named, which have not contributed a tenth part as much to a clear understanding of the question, as this one article in the Westminster. We have not space for a complete résumé of it. We can only present an extract or two. The following brings forward tendencies too little noticed by the antagonists of the papacy:

"A true British Protestant, whose notions of "Popery" are limited to what he hears from an evangelical curate or has seen at the opening of a Jesuit church, looks on the whole system as an obsolete mummery; and no more believes that men of sense can seriously adopt it, than that they will be converted to the practice of eating their dinner with a Chinaman's chop-sticks instead of the knife and fork. He pictures to himself a number of celibate gentlemen, who glide through a sort of minuet by candle-light around the altar, and worship the creature instead of the Creator, and keep the Bible out of every body's way, and make people easy about their sins: and he is positive that no one above a "poor Irishman," can fail to see through such nonsense. Few even of educated Englishmen have any suspicion of the depth and solidity of the Catholic dogma, its wide and various adaptation to wants ineffaceable from the human heart, its wonderful fusion of the supernatural into the natural life, its vast resources for a powerful hold upon the conscience. We doubt whether any single reformed church can present a theory of religion comparable with it in comprehensiveness, in logical coherence, in the well-guarded disposition of its parts. Into this interior view, however, the popular polemics neither give nor have the slightest insight: and hence it is a common error both to underrate the natural power of the Romish scheme, and to mistake the quarter in which it is most likely to be felt. It is not among the ignorant and vulgar, but among the intellectual and imaginative—not by appeals to the senses in worship, but by consistency and subtlety of thought—that in our days converts will be made to the ancient church. We have receded far from the Reformation by length of time; the management of the controversy has degenerated: it has been debased by political passions, and turned upon the grossest external features of the case; and when a thoughtful man, accustomed to defer to historical authority, and competent to estimate moral theories as a whole, is led to penetrate beneath the surface, he is unprepared for the sight of so much speculative grandeur, and, if he have been a mere Anglican or Lutheran, is perhaps astonished into the conclusion, that the elder system has the advantage in philosophy and antiquity alike. From this, among other causes, we incline to think that the Roman Catholic reaction may proceed considerably further in this country ere it receives any effectual check. The academical training and the clerical teaching of the upper classes have not qualified them to resist it. At the other end of society there are large masses who cannot be considered inaccessible to any missionary influence, affectionately and perseveringly applied. Not all men, in a crowded community, are capable of the independence, the self-subsistence, without which Protestantism sinks into personal anarchy. The class of weak, dependent characters, that cannot stand alone in the struggle of life, are unprovided for in the modern system of the world. The coöperative theorist tries to take them up. But somehow or other he is usually a man with whom, by a strange fatality, coöperation is impossible; intent on uniting all men, yet himself not agreeing with any; with individuality so intense and exclusive, that it produces all the effect of intolerant self-will; and thus the very plans which by his hypothesis are inevitable, are by his temper made impracticable. He appeals, however, and successfully, to the uneasiness felt by the feeble in the strife and pressure of the world; he fills the imagination with visions of repose and sympathy; he awakens the craving for unity and incorporation in some vast and sustaining society. And whence is this desire, disappointed of its first promise, to obtain its satisfaction? Is it impossible that it may accept proposals from the most ancient, the most august, the most gigantic organization which the world has ever seen?—that it may take refuge in a body which invests indigence with sanctity—which cares for its members one by one—which has a real past instead of a fancied future, and warms the mind with the coloring of rich traditions—which, in providing for the poorest want of the moment, enrolls the disciple in a commonwealth spread through all ages and both worlds! Whatever socialistic tendency may be diffused through the English mind is not unlikely, in spite of a promise diametrically opposite, to turn to the advantage of the Catholic cause."

Here is another valuable contribution to the philosophy of this controversy. There are few positions more relied on by Roman Catholics, or more thoroughly unsound and fallacious, than the assertion that there are no essential differences between the position of Roman Catholics and of Protestants as regards the state and the English established church.

"If we had to deal simply with a form of worship and theology, there would be no ground for distinguishing between the case of the Catholics and that of the Dissenters." And practically perhaps, in the actual condition of Europe, the question now in agitation might be permitted to rest there. But, in fairness to the Protestant feeling, it should never be forgotten that the Roman Catholic system presents a feature absent from every other variety of nonconformity. It is not a religion only, but a polity; and this in a very peculiar sense. Other systems also—as the Presbyterian—include among their doctrines an opinion in favor of some particular church government; which opinion, however, professing to be derived from Scripture by use of private judgment, stands, in their case, on the same footing with every other article of their creed. You might differ from John Knox about synods, without prejudice to your agreement in all else. But with the Romish church it is different. It is not that her religion contains a polity; but that her polity contains the whole religion. The truths she publishes exist only as in its keeping, and rest only on its guarantee; and if you invalidate it, they would vanish, like the promissory notes of a corporation whose charter was proved false. Christianity, in her view, is not a doctrine, productive of institutions through spontaneous action on individual minds; but an institution, the perpetual source of doctrine for individual obedience and trust. Revelation is not a mere communication of truth, not a transitory visit from heaven to earth, ascertained by human testimony, and fixed in historical records; but a continuous incarnation of Deity, a permanent real presence of the Infinite in certain selected persons and consecrated objects. The same divine epiphany which began with the person of the Saviour has never since abandoned the world: it exists, in all its awfulness and power, only embodied no longer in a redeeming individual, but in a redeeming church. The word of inspiration, the deed of miracle, the authority to condemn and to forgive, remain as when Christ taught in the temple, walked on the sea, denounced the Pharisee, and accepted the penitent. These functions, as exercised by him, were only in their incipient stage; he came,—to exemplify them indeed, but chiefly to incorporate them in a body which should hold and transmit them to the end of time. From his person they passed to the College of the Twelve, under the headship of Peter; and thence, in perpetual apostleship, to the bishops and pastors, ordained through legitimate hands, for the governance of disciples. These officers are the sole depositaries, the authorized trustees of divine grace; whose decision, whether they open or shut the gate of mercy, is registered in heaven and is without appeal. Not that they can play with this power, and dispose of it by arbitrary will. The media through which it is to flow have been divinely appointed: its channels are limited to certain physical substances and bodily acts or postures, selected at first hand for the purpose:—water at one time, bread at another, oil at a third, handling of the head at a fourth. But the infusion of the supernatural efficacy into these "alvei" depends on an act of the appointed official; through whom alone the divine matter—no longer choked up—can have free currency into the persons of believers. To this inheritance of miracle is added a stewardship of inspiration. The episcopate is keeper of the Christian records: and as those records are only the first germ of an undeveloped revelation, with the same body is left the exclusive power of unfolding their significance, and directing the growth and expansion of their ever fertile principles. Whatever interpretation the hierarchy may put upon the Scriptures, whatever doctrine or discipline they may announce as agreeable with the mind of God, must be accepted as infallible and authoritative. The same spirit of absolute truth which spoke in the living voice of Christ, which guided the pen of evangelists, still prolongs itself in the thought and counsels of bishops, and renders their collective decisions binding as divine oracles. The people who form the obedient mass of the Catholic body are not without a share of this miraculous light in the soul; not indeed for the discernment of any new truth, but for the apprehension of the old. The moment the disciple is incorporated in the church, faith bursts into sight; he passes from opinion into knowledge; he perceives the objects of his worship, and the truth of his creed, with more than the certainty of sense; and as he bows before the altar, or commits himself to the "Mother of God," the real presence and the invisible world are as immediately with him as the breviary and the crucifix. Through the whole Catholic atmosphere is diffused a preternatural medium of clairvoyance, which at every touch of its ritual vibrates into activity, and opens to adoring view mysteries hid from minds without.

"Now, with the spiritual aspects of this theory we are not here concerned. Reason has no jurisdiction over the inspiration that transcends it. But there is a humbler task to which the common intellect is not incompetent. We may plant this system in a political community, set it down beside the state, imagine it surrounded by families, and schools, and municipalities, and parliaments, by the prison and the court of justice; within the shadow of law and in the presence of sovereignty; and we may ask how it will work amid these august symbols of a nation's life, and how adjust itself in relation to them? Will it leave them to their free development? Can it tranquilly coexist with them, and be content to see them occupy the scope which English traditions and English usage have secured for them? We are convinced it cannot; that every step it may make is an encroachment upon wholesome liberty; that it is innocent only where it is insignificant, and where it is ascendant will neither part with power, nor use it well; and that it must needs raise to the highest pitch the common vice of tyrannies and of democracies—the relentless crushing of minorities."