Where, one wonders, in these sad and tawdry days, can we find students of the holy ilk of Chaucer’s pilgrim who place faith and reason ahead of priggish pomp and political pontificating? Not, it seems, at the Oxford Union…
I am in receipt of an invitation to address the Oxford Union from its President, Daniel Wilkinson, in what Mr. Wilkinson describes as “one of our historic debates.” Continuing in similar understated mode, he describes the organization of which he is president as “one of the most prestigious student societies in the world”:
Throughout our history, we have played host to world-leading politicians, thinkers, and activists alike who have spoken on the most important issues of the day. From former Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Oxford Union has been at the forefront of contemporary political and social debate. It would be an honour if you were to join us in debate and continue this fine tradition.” We would be delighted, therefore, were you to speak on the motion: This House Believes the Catholic Church Can Never Pay for Its Sins.
It is not difficult to imagine my feelings as I read these words. That part of me which is least commendable, either to myself or to anyone else, was flattered that I should have been asked to follow in the footsteps of such an illustrious company of saints, sinners, and scoundrels. Such vainglorious feelings were soon exorcised, however, by a sense of anger at the outrageously bigoted motion on which I was being asked to speak. I couldn’t help thinking that the whole “debate” was really the excuse for the lynching of anyone who dared to oppose the arrogance and ignorance of the motion. Being asked to oppose such a motion was akin to being asked to tell the court how many times I had beaten my wife. There was a presumption of guilt with no real suggestion that the defendant could ever, in a million years, be found innocent of the crime for which he’d been framed. It was all so reminiscent of the show trials of the Soviet Union or of the Puritan witch-hunts of post-Reformation Europe.
After this sense of anger had subsided, I decided that I would accept the invitation. There’s a part of me that relished the prospect of being cast as a Daniel in this particular lion’s den, or as a Patrick in this particular nest of vipers. I replied that I would be very happy to speak on the motion in question and requested a modest compensation for the time away from my family and the expense that a trip across the Atlantic would require. At the time of writing, I have not even received the simple courtesy of a reply. Clearly, I should have felt so “honoured” to have received an invitation to speak in one of the “historic debates” of “one of the most prestigious student societies in the world” that I would be only too happy to leave my wife and children for the best part of a week, neglect my work, and pay several thousand dollars for the privilege. It was not enough that Daniel should enter the lion’s den; he should pay for the “honour” of doing so.
Since, therefore, I will not now have the opportunity, presumably, to speak at the Oxford Union on the motion that “the Catholic Church can never pay for its sins,” I will take this opportunity to offer the gist of what I would have said in the debate.
I would begin by seeking clarity on what was meant by the Catholic Church. If we see the Catholic Church as nothing but a human institution, a political structure comprised of sinful individuals, we could concede immediately that it could never pay for its sins, any more than could the Oxford Union and its members pay for theirs. No human being can ever pay for his sins. Only Christ can pay for our sins, a price he has paid on the Cross. If, however, the Catholic Church is taken on its own terms, ecclesiologically, we find that we are not talking about a merely human institution but a divinely instituted Thing, which is nothing less than the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church Triumphant is the Communion of Saints in heaven whereas the Church Militant is the Communion of sinners on earth. We are all sinners, which is why we need the sacramental grace that the Church offers, without which we are destined to flounder, flailing in our own selfishness before drowning in our own hopelessness and helplessness.
“This is all very well,” I can here my interlocutor saying, “but you are dodging the issue.” He would no doubt then continue in the exact words of the letter of invitation that I received from Mr. Wilkinson: “In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report [on sexual abuse by priests], critics argue that based on the scale of damage done, efforts [to address the problem] continue to be insufficient. In light of this we ask, can the Catholic Church ever pay for its sins?” My response would be to concede, readily, that the hierarchy of the Church has failed miserably. The failure is due to the fact that many members of the hierarchy have ceased to believe in the virtue of chastity. Abandoning chastity, they have allowed themselves and others to indulge their sexual appetites in a manner that reflects the views of the world, and no doubt the views of the Oxford Union, and not the teaching of the Church. The irony is that the problem is caused by an abandonment of the Church and her teaching and by the embrace of secular values.
None of this is new. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we see essentially the same unchanging humanity struggling with essentially the same unchanging problems, inside and outside the Church. We see the same struggle between holiness and hedonism, sanctity and sin, virtue and vice. The seven deadly sins are as deadly now as they were in Chaucer’s time. They kill human society as surely as they kill the human soul. They destroy the love of God and neighbour as surely as they destroy the wholeness or holiness of the self-centred self. Pride is still pride, and it still precedes a fall; lust is still lust, and it is as destructive to life and to marriage as it always was; avarice is still avarice, gluttony is still gluttony, sloth is still sloth, envy is still envy, wrath is still wrath, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. In Chaucer, as in Dante, we see Everyman, which is to say all of us, struggling with the perennial problems that have beset every generation of men throughout the countless centuries of human history. Nothing has changed, everything remains the same. And throughout all of this, across the centuries, the Church has been the channel of God’s healing grace, in spite of the sinfulness of her members.
Let us return to Chaucer. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales presents a motley group of people, mostly reprobates evidently in need of the grace that a pilgrimage brings. There is the less than holy Prioress who is too prim and proper for her own good, seeking the pleasures that opulence affords. Even worse than the prim Prioress is the worldly Monk, whose wealth makes a mockery of his vow of poverty and whose heretical theology makes a mockery of his orthodox pretensions. As if the Prioress and Monk were not cause enough for scandal, the Friar plumbs new depths of depravity, committing acts of fornication and adultery, getting maidens pregnant and begging from the rich so that he can keep up his life of lechery and luxury. The roll-call of reprobates continues: the shady Merchant, the pleasure-seeking Franklin, the avaricious Physician, the formidable and self-serving Wife of Bath, the utterly uncouth Miller, the dishonest Manciple, the corrupt and lecherous Summoner, and last and perhaps worst, the corrupt Pardoner who makes a living selling fake relics to the gullible faithful. And yet in the midst of this doom and despondency, Chaucer kindles candles of sanctity to lighten our hearts and enlighten our way. There is, especially and magnificently, the poor Parson, who exemplifies the calling of a good and holy priest, putting his hypocritical neighbours to shame with his life of simple service to the farthest flung members of his flock; and there is his brother, the Ploughman, who, living in peace and perfect charity, loving God above all, is the epitome of a truly holy layman. And so it is that Chaucer seasons his largely objectionable menagerie of miserable sinners with a couple of saints, one representing the clergy and the other the laity, who serve as candles in the dark, shining forth sanity and sanctity in the midst of the mayhem of the madness of sin. And what the Parson and the Ploughman represent on Chaucer’s fictional pilgrimage to Canterbury, the saints of the Church represent on humanity’s pilgrimage through the centuries. They show us the light of life amidst the culture of death. This is the debt that the world always owes to the Church. It is the debt that those in the darkness of sin owe to those who bring them candles of goodness, truth, and beauty.
Returning to the supercilious tone of the Oxford Union motion, I am reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which an agitated anti-Roman activist, played by John Cleese, asks what the Romans have ever done for us. He is given one example after another of the benefits of Roman civilization. “All right… all right,” he concedes, “but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?”
Apart from the sanity that sanctity brings to a world of sin, the Church founded the first hospitals and schools; it looked after the poor, and the homeless; it gave us great art and great literature, and great music, and edifying architectural edifices. But apart from that, my antagonist would no doubt ask, “what have the Roman Catholics ever done for us?” Such people are contemptible cads who are forever kicking down the ladders by which they’ve climbed. Take, for instance, my would-be interlocutors at the Oxford Union. Considering the crucial role that the Catholic Church played in the founding and building of Oxford University, one might ask them whether they can ever repay the debt they owe to the Church.
Let’s end by returning once again to Chaucer. One of the handful of holy pilgrims en route to Canterbury was the “clerk of Oxenford,” a student at Oxford University who prefers poverty and a life of learning over the comforts of the world and prays for the souls of his friends and benefactors. He would much rather have at his bedside a library, bound in black calf or red, of Aristotle and his philosophy than any fancy clothes or other rich trappings of the world.
Learning was all he cared for or would heed.
He never spoke a word more than was need,
And that was said in form and decorum,
And brief and terse, and full of deep meaning.
Moral virtue was reflected in his speech,
And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.
Where, one wonders, in these sad and tawdry days, can we find students of the holy ilk of Chaucer’s pilgrim who place faith and reason ahead of priggish pomp and political pontificating? Not, it seems, at the Oxford Union. Such is its derisive fall.
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