The Challenge

I was pointed towards this lovely article J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lost Prophetic Message on Abuse in the Church. It is for the reader to discern whether he should remain in the institutional RC Church or do something else. I am a cradle Anglican and was wrong in my choice and immature in my decision to become a Roman Catholic back in 1981. I returned to Anglicanism via the Continuum. Clergy of all churches can be tempted to seek partners for sex and even use manipulation to these ends. As a fresh young schoolboy, I came across a twisted Anglican vicar or two, and was able to avoid their clutches by simply telling them that I was not interested. Even in those days, they could go to prison and lose everything! I even heard the expression in the 1970’s “Mr X likes chicken leg” from a cathedral organist, not referring to food but young boys. There is an odd kind of complicity about this sordid subject, even among those who were in contact with the predatory clergy but did not themselves engage in such behaviour.

A lot of people are going to be seriously scandalised over the coming weeks and months, whatever happens with the Pope and his collaborators. I have already read sneering comments on Facebook about “superstitions” about “sky fairies” and how atheism and Islam would be triumphant on the final discrediting of Christianity.

Tolkien wrote this beautiful text:

You speak of ‘sagging faith’, however, that is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). ‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for ‘final perseverance’. The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

This scandal will not affect only Roman Catholics but all Christians and all believers and non-materialists. It may be a challenge to many of us, even when we were hardened by seminary life, the culture of secrecy and human manipulation even when no physical sex was involved. This challenge has to be faced, by a mature faith and an authentic spirituality based on contemplation of the absolutely transcendent God and His presence within each and every one of us.

The kind of religion that seeks power, money and unconditional obedience may well die, and there is no need of a devil or evil spirit to prevail. What cannot die is what is within each of us and what even death cannot vanquish, and that doesn’t depend on institutional Churches. Even the sacramental Church only represents the stages though which the soul passes from childhood to maturity and the transition from this world to another.

Solutions for the priesthood? I have bitter experience of the kind of culture that favours that unhealthy kind of complicity. It is important for the priest to “get his life”, to discern and isolate what his vocation really means. The solutions usually proposed by conservatives leave me unconvinced. The kind of men they would want remain laymen, get married, have a family and remain in their jobs until retirement. I have discussed the “wooden leg” factor which only concerns a minority. As a seminarian, there was a kind of pleasure in wearing the cassock and belonging to an admired elite – it does something for self-esteem, but it is shallow. The affected piety is often little more than a justification for this rush of pleasure we receive at such a young age. Does this justify the liberal line of abolishing any kind of priestly identity (hunting out seminarians possessing a Latin breviary and a cassock) and doing so by the use of repression?

One thing I appreciate greatly in our Church (ACC) is that we do wear cassocks and liturgical vestments. We are also able to abstain from their use when in strictly secular life, being able to wear a suit and tie like my Bishop does in secular circumstances or my usually casual style. It is usually like this with Orthodox priests, and as things were in the middle ages and up to the eighteenth century in the west. We wear the cassock on duty, and live in the world as ordinary guys. This reality will come home even more as the world sees a symbol of shame and contempt in the dog collar and other items of clerical dress.

The catacomb Church will have other priorities, even when we opt for sacred and uplifting liturgies and a contemplative outlook. We should take heart in Tolkien’s thoughts and grow in ourselves the strength and character to live through the mocking and sneering to come.

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2 Responses to The Challenge

  1. Tolkien makes some good points here, in this letter which I have read many times (especially during times of bitter trial, to allude to another prominent literary Catholic) but a bad priest may shake someone’s already wavering faith. My own father can’t be bothered with Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, not necessarily because of a lack of faith but largely because of stories told him by his father, who, in 1930’s Ireland, was brutalised by “stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests.” I don’t mean that he was sexually abused, just beaten and verbally abused regularly. An elderly woman in my old parish (not Blackfen) told me a story once. An old Irishman was sitting on a bench outside the church, holding a rosary. He wasn’t praying but he had a very troubled look, so she went and spoke to him. Apparently he wouldn’t go into the church, howbeit she besought him. I don’t know what was said but he got up and went home and was never seen there again. That old Irishman was my grandfather. It could have been Frank McCourt!

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this – link, quotation, and further reflections!

    What a great letter that is, as a whole (Letter 250, of 1 November 1963) – or as a set of extensive selections (given various instances of ‘…’). Anybody near a good library (or bookshop of the sort that doesn’t object to your actually sampling a book) would not do amiss to treat themselves to reading all of it – and further in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981).

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