Saturday, June 11, 2005

Deja-vu all over again


A very influential stream of Catholic apologetics in the 1st half of the [20th] century took the form of a critique of modern culture. It maintained that the modern West in rejecting the divine authority of the Church was ineluctably plunging toward the abyss of nihilism and despair. This approach is especially evidence in works by converts seeking to win others to the Catholic faith.

The majority of the converts, both in England and the United States, came from the broad and liberal types of Protestantism. They had become convinced that civilization would fall apart without a strong religious authority such as Catholicism alone offer. Zealous laymen such as David Goldstein and Frank Sheed, as well as highly apostolic priests such as Fulton Sheen, Martin Scott, and John A. O’Brien, swelled the volume of Catholic apologetical writing.

The themes of the convert literature show little variety. Outside the Catholic Church religions was rapidly declining; dogma was evanescing, Church membership was shrinking (Knox), “Protestantism was splintered into a myriad of groups” (Murray Ballantyne). The Protestant churches were in utter bewilderment on moral questions such as birth control, divorce, and spiritualism; only the Catholic church consistently dared to speak up against the spirit of the times and with accents of authority (Chesterton). Western civilization was still living off the accumulated capital of the ages of faith; but it was illusory to suppose that “it is possible to conserve all of positive and constructive value in the Christian order while removing from it belief in God” (Rosalind Hoffman). To become a Catholic was to assume a part in “an Armageddon-fight between the old culture in which Europe was cradled, and the sharply defined materialistic forces of today” (Knox). “The craving for unity, for consistency, for certainty…can be satisfied only where the principle of authority, established by Christ, stands like the rock of Gibraltar against the shifting winds of private fancy” (John A. O’Brien). “The cold clear light of reason is all the guidance a man needs to find his way to the Church” (Lunn).

The spirit of the convert literature is reflected in some of the titles: Rebuilding a Lost Faith (John L. Stoddard), Restoration (Ross Hoffman), The Good Pagan’s Failure (Rosalind Murray), The Flight from Reason and Now I See (Arnold Lunn), I Had to Know (Gladys Baker), All or Nothing (Murray Ballantyne)—and even by Thomas Merton’s Dantesque title, The Seven Story Mountain. The mood was at once rationalist and authoritarian, and on both counts restorationist. The world could save itself only by going back to The Thirteenth, The Greatest Centuries (James J. Walsh).

Converts from English-speaking Protestantism were in general very negative toward the Church they had left. They often took the position that Protestantism as a faith was dead. Their arguments ere directed toward men who loved civilization and reason rather than to firm Protestant believers.

A. Dulles, A History of Apologetics (Wipf and Stock Publishers 1999), 218-19.


If you compare this generation of convert literature with the current crop, you can readily see that present-day converts to Catholicism are recycling the same old arguments.

One can also see, from our historical distance, that rumors of the demise of Protestantism were greatly exaggerated.

True, there’s a certain amount of dead wood in contemporary Protestant scene, but then, there has always been a certain amount of dead wood in Protestantism. A measure of nominal faith and worldly wisdom is a perennial feature of religious landscape. You can retroject that all the way back into the NT church, and before then, to the OT church.

So that hasn’t changed. There is no downward trend in the fortunes of Evangelicalism. There is the same combination of green growth and dry rot there’s always been to one degree or another. This undergoes certain fluctuations—with seasons of drought followed by seasons of revival. Yet the pattern is cyclical.

But if the arguments haven’t changed, and if the church they left behind hasn’t changed, what has changed is the church into which they have taken refuge.

The image of the Catholic church as the rock of Gibraltar, the bedrock of unity, certainty, and consistency, was rather more plausible for the former generation. These were converts to the church of Trent and Vatican I. These were converts to a church in which tradition was frozen for all time by the unanimous consent of the fathers. These were converts to the church of the anti-Modernist measures of Pius IX and Leo XIII.

But the paradox of the contemporary convert is that is he repeating the same old arguments for an institution which is no longer the same old institution. The arguments for the church of Rome remain the same even though the church of Rome has not remained the same.

No readjustment has been made to adapt the old arguments to the new reality. And that is because the appeal of Roman Catholicism is to the ideal, and not to the real Roman Catholicism. Like a doctrinaire Marxist, the convert to Catholicism has such a felt need for the illusion to be true that no amount of dissonant evidence can burst the bubble of a starry-eyed faith.


  1. I think what has changed is the quality of the material. There doesn't seem to be any modern day Chesterton, Belloc or Lunn, although many RC apologists seem to have delusions of grandeur.

  2. True! Chesterton is a hard act to follow!