Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Rival bigots

Amongst the scores of pamphlets which a newspaper attracts to its office, there are always some which give one a melancholy notion of the state of feeling and opinion in large classes of the population. Perhaps the most unpleasant are those which trace the course of popular religious controversy—such a pamphlet, for instance, as an absurd little green book which has been sent to us from Brighton, with the pleasing title, "Important Popish Disclosures at Brighton; Romanism in the Church of England, and especially in the 'Priests’ Prayerbook,' Exposed." There is nothing particular in the pamphlet itself. It is just what such performances always are. "What are the doctrines and practices of Papists? The principal are the invocation of saints, the worship of the Virgin Mary, the real presence, tradition, penance, auricular confession coupled with priestly absolution, extreme unction, purgatory, &c. &c." "How would you define Popery when viewed as a whole? I would define it as a Christ-dishonouring and soul-destroying system, &c." Then we go on through all the local grievances arising out of the practices of the ultra High-Church party at Brighton. There is the usual specification of altars, "blazing crosses, blazing triangles of twenty-five lamps, twelve on each of the two sides and one at the apex." There is an awful account of the door at a certain "little vestry," which appears to be the ritualistic name for a confessional, being "inadvertently opened," whereupon a lady appeared kneeling before a priest. There are extracts from a certain "Priests' Prayerbook," and much else which our readers, unless they are singularly fortunate, will no doubt be able to imagine for themselves. In fact, it is just such a little pamphlet as is tolerably sure to be provoked from some zealous Protestant in every watering-place in England which happens to be blessed with a number of zealous ritualists sufficiently important to offend the Protestant nostrils of the bulk of the community. The feeling which such a performance excites is both peculiar and specific. Its first form is that of languid disgust, but this is varied by slight occasional gleams of sympathy for the writer's dislike of his opponents. A man who can see in the roman Catholic faith nothing but a "Christ-dishonouring soul-destroying system," and who believes that the chief points of it are those on which Protestants and Romanists differ—as if the creed of Pius IV., for instance, said nothing about a God or a future life, and set up a mere system of fetish-worship—is contemptible. On the other hand, if it were possible to suppose that the work done at the Reformation were really in any danger—if there were the smallest reason to think that the English people would ever, under any circumstances, see a Vicar of God in the Pope—it would be impossible not to sympathize with our terrified and scandalized Protestant countryman. As it is, he and his friends maybe compared to a group of absurd street curs barking with all their little souls at a guy who in reality is composed of a sixpenny mask, a few old clothes, and a bundle of straw, but who, to their excited imaginations, appears to be charged with gunpowder and brimstone enough to blow the British Constitution across the Atlantic Ocean. The guy is no doubt a hideous and unseemly creature, but it has the advantage of being dumb. The little dogs might be well enough in their proper place, but they want a certain quantity of whipping. The dregs of controversy are very disgusting on both sides. If anything can be much worse than the Protestant pamphleteer, it is the object of his wrath. The excesses of extreme English ritualists who insist upon a little private Popery of their own, and that spirit of proselytism which occasionally leads the Roman Catholic clergy to act upon the Mortara and Cohen precedents, are, on the whole, worse than the worst developments of Exeter Hull. A man who looks upon people out of his own Church as brands who are to be picked out of the burning — fraudulently, if not otherwise is, on the whole, a greater nuisance than the mere platform declaimer. He is slyer, less easy to fix with the responsibility of his actions, and less easily avoided or shaken off. Out of hearing out of mind applies to the one, but with the other you never know where you are. He is always capable, from what he considers as the best and highest of motives, of causing infinite misery in families. It is probable, however, that this kind of skirmishing is essential to real controversy. The outposts in a religious war can hardly be expected to learn good manners, like the outposts of a secular army. Nothing will induce them to give up little insignificant worrying hostilities which cause an infinite deal of vexation and bad feeling, without the slightest influence on the main question at issue.

Though this is the judgment which the common sense of the educated part of the world almost instinctively passes upon the sort of controversy to which we refer—though almost every one feels it to be an offence both against truth and against good manners to attack his neighbour's creed with unsparing invective, and though most of us would feel, it is to be hoped, that to try to convert a person from a form of religion with which he, or especially she, is well satisfied, would be a breach of a tacit understanding which exists in social life to respect other people's beliefs—it is nevertheless true that a case may be set up for bigotry, and that more than would appear at first sight is involved in our habitual repudiation of interference with another person's religious belief, and in the indignation which we feel at proselytism. If a person really believes with all his heart that it is absolutely essential to the temporal virtue and eternal happiness of his neighbours that they should hold a particular set of opinions, or belong to a particular association, he is bound in conscience to try to convert them. So, if he really believes a particular form of worship to be a great and horrible sin, he can hardly help protesting against it. Those who think that every one who adores the Host sins as much as a pickpocket, and those who think that every one who does not adore the Host withholds worship from God Almighty, must regard each other with a degree of indignation and horror proportioned to the sincerity and firmness of their respective convictions. The common sense of the educated part of mankind can justify its contempt for these rivals in bigotry only by showing that each side is wrong in condemning the other, and that a person who sincerely believes in either view of the case incurs no guilt of any sort whatever by acting on his view. This doctrine, of course, goes a long way, and we all know the history of its growth and present position in the world. Consciously or not, it is the doctrine held by every one, whatever may be his formal avowed creed, who is disgusted with bigotry; and no sign of the times is more encouraging than the fact that, after all, bigotry and its inseparable incidents are invariably regarded amongst educated men of all creeds with the contempt which they certainly deserve, and that almost every writer of any considerable powers of mind is free, at all events, from that reproach. Dr. Newman himself, with amiable but perfectly sincere inconsistency, avoids bigotry, though he seems to be occasionally crossed by the notion that he ought to be a bigot. The instincts of a gentleman and a scholar are in him, as in many others, too strong for his logic. He cannot help writing on controversy in the tone of an inquirer who wishes to arrive at the truth, and to show that he has reached it. He cannot rise to the burning pitch; he cannot even manage to convince his readers that he really does think it very wicked to be a Protestant. Throughout his strange autobiography he writes of himself only; nay, he implies that he is well inclined to let Protestants alone, unless they positively force their doubts and difficulties on his notice. This is, and long has been, the attitude of many distinguished members of his Church; and, on the other hand, every Protestant writer who deserves a moment's attention has long since done justice to the good side of the Roman Catholic view of things, and has on all occasions treated the questions which for three hundred years have created so much attention in Europe rather as matters of philosophical and historical inquiry than as controversies in which sin lies on one side and holiness on the other. That this is the right way of treating such discussions is so obvious that the statement is almost trivial. Who, for instance, would even tolerate in the present day a book about Hildebrand or Innocent III. which should deal with their lives in a purely controversial spirit, and without any attempt to sympathise with and understand the spirit of the times in which they lived, and the nature of the problems to which they had to turn their minds? Every modern ecclesiastical history worth reading is written on these principles, and they are altogether inconsistent with the fierce unqualified vehemence which so justly provokes our contempt in the petty warfare of controversy. If, however, this is the right way of treating such subjects, the principles on which it proceeds must be true. If we are right in studying theological controversy historically and philosophically, and not polemically, this must be because the problems which it involves are historical and philosophical. In other words, the only way of treating these subjects which is not utterly repulsive, and, so to speak, bad on the face of it, in the eyes of every man of sense and education, implies the principle that the attainment of truth in theology, as in other matters, is a question of degree, of probability, of time and place.

It is not in literature alone that we are met by this great truth. The same is emphatically true of politics. Nothing else can justify the attitude of toleration, or that attitude of impartiality between different denominations which sensible Governments are every day assuming more and more decisively. In Protestant countries this is done openly, honestly, and in so many words. In Roman Catholic countries it has to be done under a disguise—a very thin one, it is true. This disguise is the arbitrary, and indeed imaginary, distinction between the temporal and spiritual powers—a distinction which is of great use as a decorous way of excluding the Church from direct influence on the more important and interesting departments of human life, but which, considered philosophically, is absurd. Any one who really and seriously believes that there exists in the world a divinely constituted society which is the ultimate and infallible arbiter on all questions of right and wrong, must in consistency believe that the State ought to be its servant. Suppose it is competent to the Church to declare that it is wrong to tolerate heresy, how can the king, or the members of a representative assembly, in their individual capacities, refuse to admit and to act upon this principle? To do so would be to deny to the Church the right of deciding moral questions. The distinction between temporal and spiritual is useful principally because it affords a plausible, though not a tenable, way of evading this tyranny. "I acknowledge your authority in the spiritual department, but I claim the right of deciding for myself what are its limits." They are apt to be very narrow when assigned in this spirit.

It is well worth while to observe how deep and vital is the connexion between bigotry and Romanism carried out in its full perfection. A little volume of Roman Catholic Essays lately published supplies a perfect illustration of this subject. In discussing the position of Roman Catholics in England, Mr. Frederic Oakley observes:—''One of the misfortunes of our position is the temptation it creates to think better of 'liberal Protestants' than of what are called 'bigots.'" . . . "Our theology gives a preference to those who are faithfully acting upon the dictates of an erroneous conscience over those who renounce in practice the conclusions of their better knowledge, and treat the questions between themselves and us under any other point of view than as one of the gravest personal import." Mr. Oakley is quite right, and perfectly consistent. He is eternally and essentially the ally of the bigots of all creeds and denominations. He has infinitely less in common with Dr. Milman than with the man who can see nothing in his creed but a "Christ-dishonouring, soul-destroying system." Between himself and his brother bigot it is, he feels, a mere question of detail. Are we to fight under a red flag or a blue one?— who is to play hangman, and who martyr? But between himself and a man whose mind is really open to further information, who cares for truth wherever and whatever it may be, and who earnestly believes that it is wider and deeper than any dogmatic system whatever, there is a radical difference. It is far less annoying to be called Antichrist, and a Scarlet Woman sitting on seven hills, than to see oneself quietly explained, and praised or blamed, with fairness and discrimination.

Protestants of all classes should lay to heart Mr. Oakley's admission. The true way of opposing Popery is by opposing the spirit of irrational and unquestioning bigotry. If there were no higher reason for treating Roman Catholics and their creed with respect and kindness, it would be well to do so, because such treatment is the only effectual antidote to the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. View it as one of many ancient institutions, good and useful in some respects, pernicious in others, capable of and urgently requiring reform in almost every part, and you disarm it, because, amongst other reasons, this view is the true one, and receives confirmation from all historical and philosophical investigations. Get into a fright on the subject, talk about Antichrist and Babylon— admit, in a word, the principle of bigotry—and there is every reason to fear that the diabolical aspect may get to look angelic, and that the bigoted Protestant may turn into an even more bigoted Papist

Saturday Review, February 11, 1865.

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