Monday, October 26, 2009

G. K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion

During my three days at Franciscan University (22-25 October 2009), I bought several items at its bookstore. One of them is G. K. Chesterton's The Catholic Church and Conversion (Ignatius Press, 2006) I read the book during my plane ride back to Texas. I highly recommend it. Here is an excerpt that reflects in many ways the "first stage" of my own return to the Church:

It is my experience that the convert commonly passes through three stages or states of mind. The first is when he imagines himself to be entirely detached, or even to be entirely indifferent, but in the old sense of the term, as when the Prayer Book talks of judges who will truly and indifferently administer justice. Some flippant modern person would probably agree that our judges administer justice very indifferently. But the older meaning was legitimate and even logical and it is that which is applicable here.

The first phase is that of the young philosopher who feels that he ought to be fair to the Church of Rome. He wishes to do it justice; but chiefly because he sees that it suffers injustice. I remember that when I was first on the Daily News, the great Liberal organ of the Nonconformists, I took the trouble to draw up a list of fifteen falsehoods which I found out, by my own personal knowledge, in a denunciation of Rome by Messrs. Horton and Hocking. I noted, for instance, that it was nonsense to say that the Covenanters fought for religious liberty when the Covenant denounced religious toleration; that it was false to say the Church only asked for orthodoxy and was indifferent to morality, since, if this was true of anybody, it was obviously true of the supporters of salvation by faith and not of salvation by works; that it was absurd to say that Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward's phrase, "Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper," for Ward's argument was against equivocation or what people call Jesuitry. He meant, "When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only) be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie; but do not stoop to equivocate.

Do not bother yourself to say, "The child is in a wooden house not far from here," meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose." I find I made elaborate notes of all these arguments all that long time ago, merely for the logical pleasure of disentangling an intellectual injustice. I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of
becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals. I imagined that I
was noting certain fallacies partly for the fun of the thing and partly for a certain feeling of loyalty to the truth of things. But as a matter of fact, looking back on these notes (which I never published), it seems to me that I took a tremendous amount of
trouble about it if I really regarded it as a trifle; and taking trouble has certainly never been a particular weakness of mine. It seems to me that something was already working subconsciously to keep me more interested in fallacies about this particular topic than in fallacies about Free Trade or Female Suffrage or the House of Lords. Anyhow, that is the first stage in my own case and I think in many other cases: the stage of simply wishing to protect Papists from slander and oppression, not (consciously at least) because they hold any particular truth, but because they suffer from a particular accumulation of falsehood. The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth and is enormously excited to find that there is far more of it than he would ever have expected. This is not so much a stage as a progress; and it goes on pretty rapidly but often for a long time. It consists in discovering what a very large number of lively and interesting ideas there are in the Catholic philosophy, that a great many of them commend themselves at once to his sympathies, and that even those which he would not accept have something to be said for them justifying their acceptance.

This process, which may be called discovering the Catholic Church, is perhaps the most pleasant and straightforward part of the business easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life. It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable. To give anything like a full account of that process would simply be to discuss about half a hundred Catholic ideas and institutions in turn. I might remark that much of it consists of the act of translation; of discovering the real meaning of words, which the Church uses rightly and the world uses wrongly. For instance, the convert discovers that "scandal" does not mean "gossip"; and the sin of causing it does not mean that it is always wicked to set silly old women wagging their tongues. Scandal means scandal, what it originally meant in Greek and Latin: the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good. Or he will discover that phrases like "counsel of perfection" or "venial sin," which mean nothing at all in the newspapers, mean something quite intelligent and interesting in the manuals of moral theology. He begins to realise that it is the secular world that spoils the sense of words; and he catches an exciting glimpse of the real case for the iron immortality of the Latin Mass. It is not a question between a dead language and a living language, in the sense of an everlasting language. It is a question between a dead language and a dying language; an inevitably degenerating language. It is these numberless glimpses of great ideas, that have been hidden from the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture, that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage of the conversion. It is, broadly speaking, the stage in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted. And the third stage is perhaps the truest and the most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted.

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