I’ve had a note on my desk for some time to write more on the theme of Hilaire Belloc’s famous quotation on the “knavish imbecility” of those in charge of the Catholic Church. This was cited as a remark made to William Temple in Robert Speaight’s 1957 biography, The Life of Hilaire Belloc:
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
I’ve called attention to this delightful comment more than once, if only because I find it at once amusing and consoling. But I think we can draw some particularly useful lessons from it in our own day, perhaps most especially because, though I do not know exactly when Belloc made this remark, it was most likely made during the first half of the twentieth century (Belloc was born in 1870 and died in 1953): In other words, it was said during a period to which many faithful Catholics today look back as a kind of golden age. In company with men such as G. K. Chesterton and Fr. Ronald Knox, Belloc was one of the premier defenders of the Faith in his era. But he was an historian and a biographer in addition to an apologist and a controversialist, so we can assume that he had the Church’s entire history in mind, though certainly not excluding his own time.
The first lesson we might derive from this famous quotation is that the Church’s progress through history appears to us to be a very confused progress, and that in every age those who guide the Church—therefore, especially popes, bishops and the heads of religious orders—have a very checkered record for both the clarity of their several goals and the appropriateness of their chosen methods. Speaking as an active and reasonably well-informed Catholic who is old enough to have formed distinct impressions of the pontificates of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, as well as a distinct impression of the overall quality of the American episcopate and the leadership of several major religious orders during this same period, I find it consoling that a highly committed Catholic who was an extremely keen observer of the Catholic scene in Europe two generations earlier should express the same frustrations that so many of us experience today.
This seems especially remarkable precisely because he was living in the very age which we now remember as a model of Catholic firmness and stability.
Troubles in the world
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. When we look back on history for an overall impression, we are struck by the institutional stability of the Church. After all, for the last 2,000 years, she has simply been there, perduring through thick and thin, and teaching—albeit with different emphases and in response to different challenges—essentially what she still teaches in our own time, very much to the fury of her external and internal enemies. But as soon as we probe more deeply into any particular period of her history, we find that “Catholicism” was at all times in some sense wounded, that Church leaders have continually faced a wide variety of serious challenges, and that many of these leaders, popes included, have faced them relatively indecisively or even quite badly.
We also note that few bishops are remembered at all (and most of these are martyrs commemorated in the liturgical calendar), that few religious orders have been established without significant controversy, and that no religious order has ever survived long after its founding without periods of significant infidelity and decline. Finally, as we might also recognize, only a handful of the nearly 270 popes leading the Church since Jesus Christ have ever been called “the great”.
But if we had ever paid attention to Jesus Christ in our considerations of the past glories of Catholicism, we might have caught on sooner to a deep truth about the Providential arc of history, for Catholic history is written straight only with crooked lines. This is an axiom supposed to have originated with St. Teresa of Avila, but it is definitely rooted in Proverbs 16:9, which neatly explains why our way through life seems so absurdly round about: “A man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” The Church is now by a significant margin the world’s oldest continuing institution; yet Belloc (with that self-effacing humor so characteristic of the best Catholics) regards its survival for more than two weeks to be a miracle.
Would it be pushing things to suggest that this is not only manifestly true of the Church’s very first two weeks, where such a human conclusion is unmistakably warranted, but also of each and every two week period in her long history? But perhaps we cannot see that deeply into the reality of our human frailty and foolishness—nor into the Divine source of our Christian wisdom and strength.
Even the European medieval synthesis, so rich in piety, philosophy, theology, and the arts, not to mention the origins of modern science, was rife with dynastic struggles, internecine wars, cycles of moral and doctrinal laxness and renewal, widespread ignorance, conflicts between the spiritual and temporal authorities (with each frequently mistaking its own role), confusion over the treatment of Jews, battles for Christian survival against Islam, and even rivalries among theologians and philosophers more than sufficient to put our contemporary academic arrogance to shame. In fact, not to put too fine a point upon it, each and every generation of Christian history has been characterized by quarrels, sins, and a persistent failure to complete the conversion of either the world in which the Church was comparatively strong, or the world in which she was either comparatively or completely unknown.
Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has proven the truth of that famous statement of Christ that is either discouraging or encouraging, or both, depending on which part of it we consider:
Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. [Jn 16:31-33]
We are not to consider that this assurance was intended to apply only before the Resurrection. For that is precisely the sort of “knavish imbecility” which has led to the ongoing historic Catholic effort to secure the Church’s worldly position—an effort as evident a thousand years ago, among Churchmen who incessantly insisted on their worldly prerogatives, as it is today among Catholics at every level who incessantly insist on their worldly “relevance”.
The lesson in all this is that we are not to yearn for the past when all was well, for all was not well at all—or if it seemed a little too well, then it was the wrong sort of “wellness”. Thus we experienced a 1950s Catholic culture (incidentally, with one form of liturgy) which too often merely imitated the dominant worldly culture of the 1950s, and which was easily and rapidly transformed into a 2020s Catholic culture (with, again incidentally, another form of liturgy) which still mirrors the dominant worldly culture in which the Church finds herself now. This mimicry is not of the Gospel but of a worldly “institutionalism”. Moreover, the furor over accommodation running through so many of our Catholic institutions still largely partakes of this same bankrupt character.
No: In the world we have tribulation. So when will we learn to distrust our own knavish imbecility, our own insistence on having influence? When will we learn to distrust our own worldly aspirations even for the Church? Instead, regardless of the situation, we are called always to be of good cheer. Moreover, nothing can be more attractive than this: Good cheer now and good cheer always, but good cheer ever ready to account for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15): Good cheer through, with and in Christ our Savior, who already has overcome the world.
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