The National Catholic Review
Dec 1 1934 - 12:00am | G. K. Chesterton
From December 1, 1934
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I have explained that these are sketches of six separate occasions on which I should have become a Catholic, if I had not been the one and only kind of human being who cannot become a Catholic. The excitement of conversion is still open to the atheist and the diabolist; and everybody can be converted except the convert.

In my first outline, I mentioned that one of the crises, which would in any case have driven me the way I had gone already, was the shilly-shallying and sham liberality of the famous Lambeth Report on what is quaintly called birth control. It is, in fact, of course, a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control. But this particular case was only the culmination of a long process of compromise and cowardice about the problem of sex; the final surrender after a continuous retreat.

There is one historical human fact which now seems to me so plain and solid that I think that even if I were to lose the faith, I could not lose sight of the fact. It has rather the character of a fact of chemistry or geology; through from another side it is mysterious enough, like many other manifest and unmistakable facts. It is this: that at the moment when religion lost touch with Rome, it changed instantly and internally, from top to bottom, in its very substance and the stuff of which it was made. It changed in substance; it did not necessarily change in form or features or externals. It might do the same things; but it could not be the same thing. It might go on saying the same things; but it was not the same thing that was saying them.

At the very beginning, indeed, the situation was almost exactly like that. Henry VIII was a Catholic in everything except that he was not a Catholic. He observed everything down to the last bead and candle; he accepted everything down to the last deduction from a definition; he accepted everything except Rome. And in that instant of refusal, his religion became a different religion; a different sort of religion; a different sort of thing. In that instant it began to change; and it has not stopped changing yet.

We are all somewhat wearily aware that some modern churchmen call such continuous change progress; as when we remark that a corpse crawling with worms has an increased vitality; or that a snow man slowly turning into a puddle is purifying itself of its accretions. But I am not concerned with this argument here. The point is that a dead man may look like a sleeping man a moment after he is dead, but decomposition has actually begun. The point is that the snow man may in theory be made in the real image of man. Michelangelo made a statue in snow; and it might quite easily have been an exact replica of one of his statues in marble; but it was not in marble. Most probably the snow man has begun to melt almost as soon as it is made. But even if the frost holds, it is still a stuff capable of melting when the frost goes.

It seemed to many that Protestantism would long continue to be, in the popular phrase, a perfect frost. But that does not alter the difference between ice and marble; and marble does not melt.

The same sort of progressives are always telling us to have a trust in the future. As a fact, the one thing that a progressive cannot possibly have is a trust in the future. He cannot have a trust in his own future; let alone in his own futurism. If he sets no limit to change, it may change all his own progressive views as much as his conservative views.

It was so with the church first founded by Henry VIII; who was, in almost everything commonly cursed as Popery, rather more Popish than the Pope. He thought he might trust it to go on being orthodox; to go on being sacramentalist; to go on being sacerdotalist; to go on being ritualist, and the rest. There was only one little weakness. It could not trust itself to go on being itself. Nothing else except the Faith can trust itself to go on being itself.

Now touching this truth in relation to sex, I may be permitted to introduce a trivial journalistic anecdote.

A few years before the War, some of my fellow-journalists, Socialists as well as Tories, were questioning me about what I really meant by democracy; and especially if I really thought there was anything in Rousseau's idea of the general will. I said I thought (and I think I still think) that there can be such a thing, but it must be much more solid and unanimous than a mere majority, such as rules in party politics.

I applied the old phrase of the man in the street, by saying that if I looked out of the window at a strange man walking past my house, I could bet heavily on his thinking some things, but not the common controversial things. The Liberals might have a huge majority, but he need not be a Liberal; statistics might prove England to be preponderantly Conservative, but I would not bet a button that he would be Conservative. But (I said) I should bet that he believes in wearing clothes. And my Socialist questioners did not question this; they too accepted clothes as so universal an agreement of common sense and civilization, that we might attribute the tradition to a total stranger, unless he were a lunatic.

Such a little while ago! Today, when I see the stranger walking down the street, I should not bet that he believes even in clothes. The country is dotted with nudist colonies; the bookstalls are littered with nudist magazines; the papers swarm with polite little paragraphs, praising the brownness and braveness of the special sort of anarchical asses here in question. At any given moment, there may be a general will; but it is an uncommonly wavering sort of will without the Faith to support it.

As in that one matter of modesty, or the mere externals of sex, so in all the deeper matters of sex, the modern will has been amazingly weak and wavering. And I suppose it is because the Church has known from the first this weakness which we have all discovered at last, that about certain sexual matters she has been very decisive and dogmatic; as many good people have quite honestly thought, too decisive and dogmatic.

Now a Catholic is a person who has plucked up courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that something else may be wiser than he is. And the most striking and outstanding illustration is perhaps to be found in the Catholic view of marriage as compared with the modern theory of divorce; not, it must be noted, the very modern theory of divorce, which is the mere negation of marriage; but even more the slightly less modern and more moderate theory of divorce, which was generally accepted even when I was a boy.

This is the very vital point or test of the question; for it explains the Church's rejection of the moderate as well as the immoderate theory. It illustrates the very fact I am pointing out, that divorce has already turned into something totally different from what was intended, even by those who first proposed it. Already we must think ourselves back into a different world of thought, in order to understand how anybody ever thought it was compatible with Victorian virtue; and many very virtuous Victorians did. But they only tolerated this social solution as an exception; and many other modern social solutions they would not have tolerated at all.

My own parents were not even orthodox Puritans or High Church people; they were Universalists more akin to Unitarians. But they would have regarded birth prevention exactly as they would have regarded infanticide. But about divorce such liberal Protestants did hold an intermediate view, which was substantially this. They thought the normal necessity and duty of all married people was to remain faithful to their marriage; that this could be demanded of them, like common honesty or any other virtue. But they thought that in some very extreme and extraordinary cases a divorce was allowable.

Now, putting aside our own mystical and sacramental doctrine, this was not on the face of it an unreasonable position. It certainly was not meant to be anarchical.

But the Catholic Church, standing almost alone, declared that it would in fact lead to an anarchical position; and the Catholic Church was right.

Any man with eyes in his head, whatever the ideas in his head, who looks at the world as it is today, must know that the whole social substance of marriage has changed; just as the whole social substance of Christianity changed with the divorce of Henry VIII. As in the other case, the externals remained for a time and some of them remain still. Some divorced persons, who can be married quite legally by a registrar, go on complaining bitterly that they cannot be married by a priest. They regard a church as a peculiarly suitable place in which to make and break the same vow at the same moment.

And the Bishop of London, who was supposed to sympathize with the more sacramental party, recently submitted to such a demand on the ground that it was a very special case. As if every human being's case were not a special case.

That decision was one of the occasions on which I should have done a bolt, if I had delayed it so long.

But the general social atmosphere is much the most important matter.

Numbers of normal people are getting married, thinking already that they may be divorced.

The instant that idea enters, the whole conception of the old Protestant compromise vanishes. The sincere and innocent Victorian would never have married a woman reflecting that he could murder her. These things were not supposed to be among the day dreams of the honeymoon.

The Church was right to refuse even the exception. The world has admitted the exception; and the exception has become the rule.

As I have said, the weak and inconclusive pronouncement upon birth prevention was only the culmination of this long intellectual corruption. I need not discuss the particular problem again at this point, beyond saying that the same truth applies as in the case of divorce.

People propose an easy way out of certain human responsibilities and difficulties; including a way out of the responsibility and difficulty of doing economic justice and achieving better payment for the poor. But these people propose this easy method in the hope that some people will only use it to a moderate extent; whereas it is much more probable that an indefinite number will use it to an indefinite extent.

It is odd that they do not see this; because the writers and thinkers among them are no longer by any means optimistic about human nature like Rousseau; but much more pessimistic about human nature than we are. Considering mankind as described, for instance, by Aldous Huxley, it is hard to see what answer he could possibly give, except the answer which we give, if the question were put thus: "On the one side, there is an easy way out of the difficulty by avoiding childbirth; on the other side, there is a very difficult way out of the difficulty, by reconstructing the whole social system and toiling and perhaps fighting for the better system. Which way are the men you describe more likely to take?"

But my concern is not with honest and direct opponents like Mr. Huxley; but with those to whom I might once have looked to defend the country of the Christian altars. They ought surely to know that the foe now on the frontiers offers no terms of compromise: but threatens a complete destruction. And they have sold the pass.

Comments

Patrick Veale | 1/29/2012 - 3:20pm
Chesterton certainly predicted the future, right down to the fact that the current generation at marriage age predicts divorce even when the couple decides to have children.  We live in a "throw-away" society.  Then we have the acceptance of single mother households, even though this condemns her (most of them) to poverty, and her children to poor conditions in which to grow up.  I honestly do not know the answer to this situation.  To keep on repeating the old mantras does not look like a success when it comes to the reproduction of our human social environment (not ot speak of our natural environment).  To follow the current trends and give them our blessing is also not an option.  So how do we re-define marriage and parenthood for the new cultural order in which this generation finds itself?