Saturday, January 09, 2010

"The Mystical Body and its Head," Robert Hugh Benson

Here is the second installment (Chapter 2) of this fine little book:


Christ at Work in the Church

We have described the claim of the Catholic Church to be the mystical Body of Christ in which He lives, speaks, and acts. We have not yet advanced any arguments, beyond a few suggestive sentences of Scripture, and a physical analogy or two, in defense of that claim (the time for that will come later); we have merely stated the position. But before passing on to these arguments it will be illuminating to notice how two or threw further claims made by the Catholic Church, and usually considered as obstacles to her acceptance by the world, are, as a matter of fact, inevitable consequences of her fundamental position.

1. It is perfectly plain that if the Catholic claim to possess Christ in what may be called His “Church Body” be accepted hypothetically, exactly the same authority must be predicated of the voice of the Church as the Voice of Christ. (I do not mean by this that Catholics hold that the Church is capable of giving new truths to the world unknown to the Apostles; only that in declaring authoritatively what was that Revelation originally given by Christ, she is as unerring as was He.) This is nothing else than that supreme stumbling block which Protestants know as the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility.

That such a transcension of the sum of component cells is possible – that is to say, that the judgment of a number of persons acting in concert is universally recognized as being at least of more value than the mere sum of their votes – this fact is illustrated by the jury system in use in most civilized countries. We give without hesitation to twelve men acting in concert a power over life and death which we would not willingly give to any one of the men taken by himself. It is true that we do not attribute to a jury actual infallibility, since we have no reason for believing that their united judgment has a promise of being ratified and safeguarded by a higher tribunal than that of human opinion, though we believe that that method of decision arrives as nearly to perfection as is possible to obtain; but, ex hypothesi, Catholics believe that the consent of the Church does rise to that higher plane – that the sum of Catholic opinion as expressed, let us say, through a Council, does actually rise to a superhuman level of consciousness, that the sum of the human cells mounts up, as in an organic body, to a new unity of life, and that that life is identified and united with a Divine One. “He that heareth you, heareth Me … As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you.” “I am he Vine: you are the branches.” Infallibility, then, on the Catholic hypothesis, is inevitably an endowment of that Body in which there thinks and speaks the Mind of God. If there be such a Body it must be infallible.

2. A second point illustrated by this belief is the extraordinary importance attached by Catholics to actual external membership in this Society. It is perfectly true – and we are not in the least ashamed of it – that we will compass the whole world to make on proselyte; it is true also that we regard with the most extreme horror those unhappy persons who, once members of the Church, are no longer so. To the Catholic who sees in the Church a human society (often terribly human), but also a Body in which God dwells, an organism composed of countless individual cells, but indwelt by a Divine Personality – a Catholic who believes that this Society is actually redemptive of the human race, as well as the actually Divine Teacher – more than a school of thought, more than the best religious club in existence, more than the Ambassador of God, more than the Bride of Christ – to the Catholic who believes that the Church is not one among ten thousand, but One, unique, singular and final, between who and other religious bodies there is no more comparison than between the creature and the Creator – to him, membership in that body, the position of a cell in that organism, is the one thing to which no other can be preferred; and the loss of that membership the one supreme catastrophe or crime. Certainly the Catholic holds that it is possible to belong to the Soul of the Church without external membership in the Body; it is possible, where there is no fault on the individual’s side, that he may be united inwardly to the Person who inhabits that Body; but such is not God’s primary intention, and to forsake the Body is to forsake the soul. In any case the individual loses enormously by being forced to stand alone, without that grace and strength of unity which external membership in the external body alone can confer.

3. A third point we must notice is the following: We have present upon earth in the Catholic Church that same personality and energy as lived upon earth two thousand years ago in the Figure of Jesus Christ. And we have the same environment – namely, the human nature of the world, human ambitions, interests, virtues, vices, circumstances, strengths and weaknesses, now as then. We should expect to find the same results now as then. So far as Jesus Christ was accepted or rejected then by the world into which He came, so will He be accepted and rejected now, and by the same kind of people for the same kind of reasons. It resembles the repetition of a chemical experiment. If there is brought to bear under certain circumstances upon certain elements a particular force, the same results will always be obtained. It will be a proof of the identity of the force that, given the same conditions, the same result is so produced. If, then, we find in the history of the Catholic Church the same psychological situations as those recorded in the Gospels continually reproduced under similar circumstances – if we find that the same comments are made, the same paradoxes generated, the same accusations leveled, the same criticisms, the same bursts of flame and thunder – if we fine the lepers healed, the dead raised, the devils cast out, and the same explanations offered of these phenomena by the incredulous – if we find the same amazing claims uttered to the world, and the same repudiations, demurrings, and acceptances of those claims – if, in short, we find in the Catholic Church only, the endless intricacies and phenomena recorded in the Gospels reproduced on the stage of human history, the conclusion will be practically inevitable that the same Personality that produced those phenomena then is reproducing them now; and that the Catholic claim to possess Jesus Christ in a unique manner in herself is not unwarranted. If the circumstances are the same and the phenomena are the same, the force must be the same.

A further point must also be noticed in this connection.

There are certain arguments drawn from the Gospels in defense of the Divinity of Christ; for example, the story of the resurrection. Now, if the narrative of the Resurrection could once be accepted as literally true, as it is there recorded, I imagine that very few persons would be found to deny the Deity of Christ. But it is exactly the apparent impossibility of proving that the narrative is true which holds many minds back from the acceptance of the full Christian position. “That is all very well” – says such a man – “but how can I be certified that He did rise again? It was a credulous age, full of expectation of the marvelous. Those who are reported to have seen Christ risen are not altogether satisfactory witnesses; there are at least superficial discrepancies in the Four Gospels; further, there are innumerable difficulties of Biblical criticism. I am not, therefore, prepared to stake my whole existence on a doctrine which I cannot possibly verify. He may have risen; He may not have risen. I was not there, I did not see it. On the whole, however, it seems to me more likely that the Evangelists deceived or were deceived, than that Christ was very God. Both alternatives are perhaps unlikely; but I prefer that which seems to me the less unlikely of the two.” So, too, with other similar arguments drawn from the Gospels in defense of Christ’s Divinity.

Now the method I propose to follow in these pages meets, I think, at any rate indirectly, the difficulties of such a critic. It is true that I cannot demonstrate to the senses the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ; but if it were possible to show that the phenomenon of Resurrection is characteristic of Catholicism; that Jesus Christ does, not once or twice, but repeatedly, rise again in the Catholic Church, rolling away stones far greater than that which lay on His sepulcher in the garden – if it were possible to see Him passing through doors more tightly closed than those of the upper room; coming through gardens in the dawnlight to lover after lover – if, in a word, this “sign of the Prophet Jonas” were a sign of Catholicism everywhere and always, it would create the strongest possible presumption that the Gospel narrative was nothing less than sober fact. And if, in addition to this, it were possible to show that all those other symptoms of His Divinity recorded in the Gospels were present in Catholicism – if His progress through the ages were seen to be accompanied by bursting tombs, opening eyes, the feeding of multitudes, and, above all, that strange aroma of Divinity attributed to Him, then the argument would be vastly increased in significance. Somewhat parallel to this observation made by Mr. Mallock in one of his books. “I can understand,” he says, in effect (though he is not a Christian), “I can understand the Catholic claim, though I cannot understand any other. The Church says to her children, you must believe these things because I tell you that I witnessed them myself, and you know that I am trustworthy. I do not refer you merely to written books, but to my continues consciousness that is called Tradition. You can believe the Resurrection securely because I was there and saw it. I saw, with my own eyes, the stone rolled away; I saw the Lord of Life come out; I went with the Maries to the tomb; I heard the footsteps on the garden path; I saw through eyes blind with tears but clear with love, Him whom my companions thought to be the Gardener.” This, says Mr. Mallock, is at any rate an intelligible and reasonable claim.1

Now this, more or less, is an illustration of the way I am attempting to argue. I am not referring simply back to written records, even though personally I may believe those records to be utterly trustworthy; but it is my hope to present, so to speak, the Catholic Church as I know her myself, that you may examine her for yourself. It is my hope to draw attention to what may be called a “personage” now living upon earth whose consciousness runs back for two thousand years one who has certain characteristics, instincts, and methods that are among her best credentials. And it is my further hope that, comparing what you can see of her with the written papers she holds in her hands, you may identify her for what she really is, and see in the persistence of that character for so long, as well as in her other credentials, at least a strong presumption that she is as unique as she claims to be; and that no hypothesis, except her actual Divinity, will adequately explain the phenomena of her life. In this manner, too, it is possible to fill up even what appear lacunæ to some minds in the written record. If you have two old manuscripts, and find that where they are legible they agree perfectly, you are tolerably save in filling up the illegibilities of one from the clear writing of the other. If you find that in numerous points the Living Church reproduces perfectly the clear testimony of the Gospels, you are justified in accepting the wetness of the Church on further points in which the Gospel appears to you doubtful or difficult.

4. Finally, let it be observed that in Catholic Christianity alone is such a claim even made as that which as been described. It may be said, without the possibility of contradiction, that in not one of the great world-religions, in not one of the smallest and most arrogant sects, has the proclamation ever been made that the Founder lives a mystical but absolutely real life in a Body composed of His followers. There have been mystical phrases used occasionally, in certain forms of Buddhism, for example, faintly suggestive of this presence of a Master with His disciples in a very intimate and transcendent manner; but never has it been asserted, in Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Confucianism, in any form of Protestantism, in any savage creed, that the great bulk of the faithful compose a living organism whose Dominican personality is Divine. Never, except in Catholic Christianity, has the assertion been solemnly made and deliberately acted upon – “I am he Vine – you the branches”; “He that heareth you, heareth Me.”

It is sufficiently remarkable that the Catholic claim is a unique one. “I have read,” says St. Augustine, “all the sages of the world; and not one of them dares to say ‘Come unto Me.’” I have looked, the Catholic may say today, upon all the Churches of the world, all the world-religions, and all the sects, and not one of them dares to take upon her lips the words of very Deity. Many say, “I possess the truth I teach the way, and I promise the life”; but not one, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” None, except one, and that the Catholic Church, claims to be actually Divine and to utter the Voice of God. The Anglicans dare not excommunicate for heresy; the Nonconformists do not wish to; the Oriental Christians out of communion with the Holy See, though they utter brave words, yet do not exhibit by proselytism and missionary enterprise that confident self-consciousness which Divinity must always show. There is but one body in the world, and that the Catholic Church, which behaves, moves, and speaks as only a Society conscious of Divinity can behave, move, and speak.

But the significance of the uniqueness of this claim is multiplied an hundredfold if in any way it can be justified. If it can be shown that the claim is a Catholic commonplace, that all the Church’s actions are based upon that supposition, that the success of her policy depends on it, that the unique phenomena of her life spring from it, that, in fact, the very heart of her life is the very assertion itself; if, finally, that assertion made by her, and made by Jesus Christ in the Gospels, produces the same results, and those results impossible of production on any other hypothesis, then, so far as moral proof can go, the claim is vindicated. If, in short, Jesus Christ has succeeded in producing such a Society as this, giving her a confidence that is more than human, and a success unparalleled in human history – if He is able to present to the doubter such a Body as this in which He lives, able to extend hands and side to the touch of skepticism, in proof that it is indeed Himself, risen again and again from what is more final even than death to all merely human energies, then it is hardly possible to imagine any other response but that which Thomas made – “My Lord and my God.”

For the appeal of the Church is in is essence an extraordinarily simple and direct one. Certainly it is possible to state that appeal in elaborate and intricate terms, to describe, justify, and indicate by illustrations, metaphors, and the rest, until the case seems too utterly complicated to be true. Yet the appeal itself is as simple as that of a mother to a child. I believe there are very learned books written on the motherly and filial instincts; it is possible to describe a smile in terms of muscles and sinews, and to analyze tears into lime and hydrogen and other elements; yet for all that, smiles and tears are the simplest things we know. And the appeal of this intricate Society, claiming to possess as she does the wisdom of the Eternal and the Source of all love, is for all that as direct and as simple as the glance of a woman’s eyes into the eyes of her child. All the eloquence of her orators and the learning of her divines, and the elaborateness of her worship, may be summed up on that single sentence that can only adequately be pronounced by the lips of Divinity – “Come unto Me.”

1 Cf. the whole argument of Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption (Mallock).

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