Litera scripta manet

“The humblest and meanest among Christians may defend the Faith against the whole Church, if the need arise. He has as much stake in it and as much right to it, as Bishop or Archbishop, and has nothing to limit him in his protest, but his intellectual capacity for making it.”

John Henry Newman wrote that as an Anglican, and on first sight it will be taken as a Victorian Protestant Yell. But consult the actual essay (the 10th in his Via Media collection) and one immediately discovers it is the opposite. Newman is instead responding to the Yell: replying to the man who “considers it a hardship to have anything clearly and distinctly told him in elucidation of Scripture doctrine, an infringement on his right of doubting, and mistaking, and labouring in vain.”

He is affirming that anyone (layman, woman, child, anyone) has in fact the right to uphold the Faith against all comers — a right subtly different from the violent enforcement of one’s right to keep oneself in a state of abject ignorance. He is at the time (it was actually just before the accession of Queen Victoria) under the impression that he is himself maintaining the “Catholic” inheritance of the Church of England, partly against “Roman” innovations.

Paradoxically, as we learn from consulting the history, his “protestation” was poorly received by his fellow Protestants in the day. The Tractarian movement of which he was a leading light — a movement to restore the catholicity of the English church — was itself resisted by those who, perhaps correctly, smelled the Roman incense creeping back into their long-ventilated chapels. The Tractarians were suspected of sneering at the proper authorities, and they were indeed suggesting that the Church was something more than an agency of Crown-in-Parliament; that it were subject to a throne mounted even higher than the Queen’s. That is to say, there was something treasonable about them.

Treason has ever been the darkest English crime. Look at their (our English-speaking) history and one may understand why obedience to duly constituted authority would be set at such a premium. We no longer have Tudors on the throne, but we do have an intellectual and spiritual continuity, which I discover each time I put the scare quotes around the word “democracy.” For while the monarchs no longer have the Divine Right of Kings, it has not disappeared. It has merely been transformed into the Divine Right of the People, expressed through the clowns whom they elect.

But ah to be in England, or to have been, to recall the full, secular unction. I feel something like a nostalgia for it, as I now smell its evaporation into the gas of post-modernism, and the gas chambers of “political correctness.” It is the same old same old, but now the Satanism is overt, and everywhere.

Er, I am getting ahead of myself.

As I wrote, Newman’s lectures were popular in some quarters of Oxford  — anciently England’s most reactionary town, as always her most learned — but increasingly unpopular among the sanctimonious of Anglican church and state. By the time he “poped” there could be not much surprise, just the usual understated horror. Three centuries of unrelenting propaganda had fixed simple equations in the English mind: that the Roman Church were the Whore of Babylon, and every Pope the Antichrist.

I mentioned before somewhere, possibly in this space, the curious history of the Flat Earth. The idea that Columbus would sail over the edge was a fiction, made up from whole cloth — by the popular American writer, Washington Irving, with something like Henry Ford’s appreciation of history. No one in the Middle Ages thought our planet anything but round, and the idea that it could be flat had not yet dawned (at least, on anyone we know) until Irving’s time. Then Darwin came along, and in the controversy over Evolution his defenders — perhaps innocently, and perhaps not — hit upon the ad hominem device of comparing Darwin’s opponents to Flat Earthers. (Their tactics today have not evolved: they still argue with straw men, exclusively.)

From sheer cussedness, some Biblical Fundamentalists (mostly in outback USA, but some in outback England) responded by buying in. They proclaimed that the world is indeed Flat, to spite the pointy-heads. Their flat-earth heritage thus dates back only to the middle of the nineteenth century. And while I’ve never myself taken to the “theory” that the world is flat, I have to admit that, compared with Darwinism, it has some merit.

Here we see again the working of what I call the “Iron Law of Paradox.” One of its corollaries is that people thoughtlessly embrace the most wanton accusations of their worst enemies. In this case, I’m dealing with Catholics in England, who thoughtlessly bought into the “Divine Right of Kings” but turned it around, embracing the “Divine Right of Popes” as their alternative.

The issue was further complicated in the High Victorian Age by propaganda against the dogma of Papal Infallibility, as defined by the First Vatican Council, under Pius IX. This dogma was misrepresented to mean that everything a Pope says is infallible — an idea only a little less intelligent than that of the Flat Earth. Properly understood, the dogma is not an empowerment of the Pope. It is a solemn limitation upon him. But that is not our topic for today.

Instead, to get to where I’m going, I should like to make an invidious comparison between the Irish and the English. The Irish, being Catholic (if we exempt the Orange ones), instinctively understood the dogma, which after all was implicit from the time that Christ elected Peter. The English, including alas many English Catholics, instinctively did not understand it. Instead, their instinct was to mock it, in the case of the Protestants; or, in the case of the Catholics, to support it, even in the terms by which it had been misrepresented. In their mirror world, the simpler of them now averred that verily, the Pope could do no wrong.

I say “English,” but this applies equally to Canada, USA, Australia, and so forth: wherever English-speaking Catholics have lived as a small and beleaguered minority, on islands in a Protestant sea. It is understandable that they may develop insular qualities, detached as they are from the spirit of universalism that may prevail elsewhere, in locations where Catholics are not taken for strange and unaccountable beasts, but rather as something normal.

My love for the Irish can be ambiguous (I am of the Scotch genetic persuasion, don’t ye know) but in this case I am totally on their side. I’ve noticed that the Irishmen in my inbox pull no punches — as if the notion that their Pope could be above criticism had not yet occurred to them. True, this is anecdotal from a few emails, but more deeply I’ve long noticed, with my weather eye for a stereotype, that Irishmen have opinions on everything they care about, and have been showing this disposition for some centuries. (And Paddy makes a great soldier, too.)

One of the things they traditionally cared a great deal about was the Throne of Peter — so much that they looked sceptically upon all who sat upon it. Should the slightest crack of light appear between “a Catholic” and “a Papist,” they were (and some of them remain) Catholics first. This was the more because specific popes had, in certain historical moments, sold them out or let them down. Given what they had suffered for the Faith, they didn’t like this.

Well, like it or not, gentle reader, this is how I explain some of my other emails, too, including the choicest Anglo-Saxon ones from fine upstanding Catholic citizens who — after confiding that they agreed with pretty much everything I said about Pope Francis — upbraid me for daring to criticize him. It is not quite that the Pope can do no wrong; rather that we should never admit it publicly. Either go through contortions to show that what he meant was the opposite of what he said, or put a stopper in it.

I half-agree with them. I think the Queen should not be treated with casual disrespect, or excessive familiarity; nor should the Pope be; nor, for that matter, the Chief Rabbi, nor the Sheikh of al-Azhar. I try to be polite myself, even when I meet a bishop. I draw the line at common politicians. The other half of this is, however, incumbent upon Pope, Rabbi, Sheikh, and Queen. They must keep themselves above the fray. Should they descend into the realm of common politicians, I cannot answer for my pen.

Reverence for the office, deference to the person, but independence of judgement, too — I want to be Irish about this. And to be with Newman, too, both before and after his Roman conversion, who in his searching study of early Church history came to realize that there were patches when the laity upheld the orthodox teaching, while their clergy cut and ran (see his: Arians of the Fourth Century). Indeed, this has happened many times in many places, in the far distant past, and today.

It happened, too, at the beginning of modern England, when of all the dozens of bishops in the kingdom of Henry VIII, the unlikely Bishop of Rochester alone stood his ground — and this while tens of thousands (the exact number will always be disputed) went to their deaths in defence of the Old Religion. We revere the memory of John Fisher, Saint and Martyr. The rest of the bishops “had their reward,” stuffed themselves on Fat Harry’s patronage for a season, and then became wormfeed.

The matter is of course more complex, yet in outline I have come to see many English sources of modern totalitarianism, in the obsequity to bosses. By now, we almost carry it in our genes, reinforced by osmosis through the English-speaking world: an idea of “kingship” that is all-too-human, and expressed in many ways.

We see it for instance in our practice of capitalism: we have the figure of the “company man,” who has no thoughts or morals of his own, since he belongs body and soul to the CEO of the moment, bowing and scraping before him on all matters of “policy.” Similarly, in politics, the ritual gesture of cabinet ministers: “I am nothing and the President is everything.” (In the Westminster “democracies,” the Prime Minister is grovelled to in the same way.)

The company man lives or dies for the corporation: he’ll work late, work weekends, come in early, fly anywhere, then bounce back on a pogo stick to please The Boss. He will sacrifice his family for him; she will put her children on the pyre for her “career.” There are parallels now, I think, in every other culture, but the Anglo-Saxon version pioneered.

To an Italian, still, this is all insanity: one lives, if not for Christ, then for oneself. Of course there is a Boss, but bosses come and go: their chief duty is to pick up after us. An Italian (not just the ones in Italy, but spiritual Italians everywhere) does not even claim the right to an opinion: it is ingrained in the way he lives and breathes. Tell him not to speak and he speaks a little louder: you’ll need a gun to shut him up. Say something outrageous in his presence, and he’ll beg you to continue. He enjoys the entertainment.

It is because our current Pope acts like an Anglo-American CEO (albeit he is an Hispanic from Antarctica), that I have developed an Italian attitude towards him. It is true he is The Boss, but he is not a CEO; his job is to pick up after us. Not only does he dispense “mercy” as Pope Francis rightly says, he has to listen first to what we have done, before he can absolve us. Benedict and Saint John-Paul fully understood this: a Pope is under very strict orders, far stricter than we are. He is servus servorum Dei. He is, as Pope Saint Gregory declared (sometime before 600 AD), my servant — or more completely, the servant of the servants of Our Lord.