THE TEACHING OF THE CHURCH
WITH the bulk of the teaching of the Church I am ,not concerned, since it is the common teaching of Christianity. Let us rather consider what are the distinctive doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome to-day: the perfect outcome of eighteen centuries of the "supernatural gift," the "priceless treasure of the faith" on which the Catholic prides himself, the belief which he would persuade America’ and England and Germany to accept now that the Latin nations are abandoning it.
Two doctrines may be taken as broadly distinctive of the Roman Church: the doctrine of the Papacy, with which I need hardly deal further, and the doctrine ‘" of the sacraments. We need not use the technical jargon which ages of theologizing have invented in this connection. It is enough that a "sacrament" is supposed to give a special "grace" or spiritual energy which the poor non-Catholic cannot get; and that these grace-giving ceremonies are baptism, penance, the eucharist, confirmation, holy orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. It is a whole life-outfit, from the cradle to the grave; leaving us in complete bewilderment how the Middle Ages were, and the countries which linger in the Middle Ages to-day are, so very un-spiritual.
The sacrament of baptism is for infants, and is to be conferred as soon as the doctor will permit the infant to be taken to the church. For a very serious reason. Every child of Adam has incurred the sin of Adam, and must pay the penalty. At first it was drastically held that every man, woman, or child who had not had this stain" washed away" in the waters of baptism would burn in hell for ever. That was too much even for medieval human nature, and the theologians made a compromise. The unbaptized cannot enter heaven. The Church sticks to that. But the innocent babes do not go to hell. They go into a sort of dim modern extension of the underworld, and may even be happy there; but they will never "see God," or see their parents again.
So the babe is rushed to the church on the first Sunday afternoon after its birth. If it catches a fatal cold, the parent must not grieve. It has gone straight to heaven, absolutely spotless. The church, and often the water, are, however, now warmed, and the weird ceremony proceeds.
I have but a dim recollection of the performance, which I have many times conducted. The "godparents" were detained at the door, and questioned; and then I put the end of a silk-slip (stole), which I wore round my neck, into the god-father’s hand, and metaphorically dragged him into the church. The rest is, in my mind-and I shudder at the idea of looking up the details-a dim phantasmagoria. You spit on your finger, and daub the babe’s mouth and eyes, and say to it "Ephetha" (in Hebrew). You put some salt into its mouth; which it generally resents in the usual manner and tone. You talk very severely, in bad Latin, to whatever devils there may be in the pink morsel, and bid them go-to Protestants or anywhere. Then you pour a shell of water, very highly exorcised and blessed, over its head (taking extreme care that it touches the skin, not merely the hair, or the babe will never go to heaven); and the dreadful sentence which overhung it, because a legendary being named Adam ate a legendary apple in a legendary garden at a time when the race was already millions of years old, is mercifully cancelled.
The "beautiful symbolism" of all this is quite lost upon even the educated Londoners and Berliners and New Yorkers who gravely and periodically assist at the performance. It is all in Latin. Even when you ask the sponsors to "renounce the devil and all his works and pomps" for the child, you must do it in a dead language, and a trained assistant must answer. Perhaps it is as well that the Church keeps the dead language. Probably few educated Catholic men would survive the ordeal if it were in English. As it is, it has disadvantages. To the Latin question whether the man believed in God, etc., I sometimes got the Latin answer, "I renounce him"; and to the question whether he renounced Satan and all his gay inspirations, I got a very emphatic "I believe in him."
It is difficult to discuss sacrament No. 1 seriously. Spittle and devils, holy oils and holy waters, lighted candles and collecting boxes are bad enough, but the essential principle of the thing is intolerable. Even the comparative damnation of the unbaptized, with "every modern convenience," is too stupid for words. There are Catholic scholars now who regard Adam and Eden as "a beautiful legend." The wonderful Encyclopædia is not sure about it, and-in the face of the absolutely unanimous science of modern times-flatly denies the evolution of man. Yet it is still the emphatic and obligatory teaching of the Church that every child born (except Mary – that is the real meaning of the "Immaculate Conception") shares "the sin of Adam," and must be put through the extraordinary performance I have described.
This is the first of the sacraments. The child then enjoys its primitive innocence, and plays marbles, sure of heaven, for several years. At about the age of seven it is, by the Catholic Church, regarded as capable of earning eternal torment by its own act, and here the sacrament of penance (confession) is, in the stupendous wisdom of the inspired Church, mercifully provided. But that institution requires a separate chapter, and I pass to the sacrament of the eucharist.
The sacrament of the eucharist – that is, the doctrine of the "real presence" of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine – is quite the central and overwhelming belief of the Catholic Church. Almost everything in its ritual is associated with this belief. It is on this priceless possession of a real live god in their midst, and on the miraculous nature of their Papacy, that Catholics affect their amusing air of 8uperiority to all the rest of mankind. And it is one of the most childish and foolish beliefs that was ever preserved in a civilized religion.
This is not the place to discuss how the simple supper of bread and wine, which Christ is described as bidding his followers celebrate in memory of him, became "the sacrament of the eucharist." The mysterious words attributed to Christ, "This is my body" and "This is my blood," cannot be proved to have existed in the Scriptures before the end of the first century; and as we know that some such mystic belief was not uncommon in the pagan world-the wine and corn, the most common sources of nourishment in that world, being regarded as especial embodiments of the nature-gods-it seems that the early Christian communities contracted the belief and added the words to the growing record of Christ’s words and deeds.
The early Church gradually elaborated this simple ceremony into the sacrifice of the "mass": a ceremony which takes its name (a corruption of the Latin missa) from the concluding words, spoken by the "assistant" (deacon), "Ite, missa est" ("Go, it is over"). Now, when we recollect that this formula was used at the close of the service in the temples of Mithra, and when we learn from St. Augustine that the pagans of his day said that the Christian "mystery of bread and wine" was indistinguishable from the Mithraic mystery, we have an important clue to the evolution of the mass.
From this and other scattered indications we know that the Mithraists held a secret ceremony of consecrated bread and wine in their temples; that lighted candles and incense, and priests in silk and linen, were part of the ceremony; and that the central idea was the redemption of men from sin by their Saviour, their "Ram of God." It is clear that, in the evolution of the complete "mass" from the simple supper on a domestic table, the pagan religions were freely laid under contribution.
The doctrine of the Church is not generally understood. This is not due to "misrepresentation," but to the fact that a non-Catholic does not find it credible that any educated modern man or woman should believe such things, and his imagination fails to grasp the full truth. He is aware that Catholics profess the "real presence" of God in the eucharist. Being accustomed to the belief that God is everywhere, he sees no intellectual enormity in this. He does not know, and can hardly be convinced, that Catholics believe, and their Church sternly and dogmatically insists, that in what seems to the eye to be bread or wine, there is, after the words of consecration, no bread or wine at all, but the living body of Jesus Christ down to the last eyelash and toenail!
In the earlier Middle Ages, as among the uneducated Catholic millions to-day, no explanation of the appearance of bread and wine was needed; nor was it necessary to attempt any explanation how the human body of Christ could be simultaneously in heaven and in a million places on the earth. To such minds anything is possible. Explanation is as superfluous as argument. But when the Moors stimulated the sleeping intellect of Europe, and the scholastic movement began, faith had to be made reasonable – to be sophisticated.
So the schoolmen fell back upon an ancient and discredited opinion of the philosopher Aristotle. In those days it was thought to be an "explanation" of a piece of bread to say that its whiteness, shape, solidity, etc. were "accidents," and that the "substance" lay, invisible, under them, much as a kernel is hidden in a nut. This was very convenient. By a supernatural operation, in the mass, the invisible "substance" of the bread and wine is replaced by the "substance" of the real, living body of Christ, and the "accidents" (shape, whiteness, etc.) are permitted to remain. As to how the body of Christ could be in a million places at once, and could exist in its full proportions in a crumb of bread, the answer was – bow to the mystery of "transubstantiation." They bowed to "the blessed word."
It must not for a moment be supposed that modern educated Catholics do not literally believe this jumble of pagan superstitions and medieval verbosity. They do. It is the very sternest dogma of the Church. The few advanced Catholics who are called Modernists would modify the belief, but most of these have been driven out of the Church by Pius X and Benedict XV. There is not a priest in the world who does not preach that doctrine, literally and emphatically, from his pulpit a score of times every year. There is not a Catholic layman in the Church who dare express the faintest doubt about it, and there are very few who wish to.
The priest dons his mystic (or Mithraic) garments, and carries his wafer to the altar. You imagine him then proceeding to the rite with portentous solemnity. Not in the least. If he does not compress the "mass" into a space of about five-and-twenty minutes, there may be coughs and shuffling in the body of the church. The people do not like a "slow" priest. They do not themselves realize what this means. The "mass" has, in the course of time, grown into a very lengthy series of prayers and rites and invocations, and the young priest has to be "drilled" for weeks in advance so as to "get through" in less than half an hour. As a result he rushes through those "sublime" prayers and hymns (as the admiring non-Catholic calls them, when he reads them, slowly, in the Missal) at a rate, literally, of at least 250 words a minute! Do not imagine, however, that this irreverence is entirely the fault of the laity. The priest has, besides his "mass," a very lengthy series of prayers and psalms to read every day from his "Breviary." This he says in private, merely repeating the words with his lips. And this solemn series of invocations to and praises of the Deity he usually "gets through" at the rate of 300 words a minute!
At the middle of the "mass" he consecrates the bread and wine, and here he must go slowly. The pitfalls begin again. If he does not articulate each word of the Latin formula, "Hoc est corpus meum" (which the ribald Protestants of the Middle Ages contracted into "Hocus-Pocus," but which means "This is my body") and "Hic est sanguis meus" ("This is my blood"), with perfect clearness, if he does not say it right at the bread and wine, there will be no magic. Then he resumes the 250 words a minute until the second solemn pause, the swallowing of Christ. He must, of course, swallow the large wafer – and it gives unconscionable trouble in a dry mouth – without putting his teeth into "the body of Christ." He must take the "blood" without spilling a drop, for in each visible crumb of bread or drop of wine there is the whole Christ, godhead and manhood.
Once, in saying mass, I unluckily upset the chalice (the silver cup of wine) after consecration, and "the blood of Christ" streamed over the altar, to the horror of the little congregation. I had, in accordance with the ritual, to steep the cloths three times in water, and pour the water by the wall of the house, where no foot could tread. In his Fourteen Years a Jesuit (Vol. II, p. 223) Count Hoensbroech tells an experience he had when a priest. An old woman told him that, after receiving the wafer in her mouth, she reflected that she was swallowing Christ’s genital organs, and she spat the wafer into her prayer-book. She gave it to him, and – he had to eat it! The "body of Christ" is in every crumb of the bread, "whole and entire" in the emphatic language of the Church; and if a crumb (the size is a matter of dispute) falls from the wafer when the priest goes to put these into the mouths .of the laity, Christ, divinity and humanity, is apt to be trodden underfoot.
If a burglar steals the silver vessel containing the consecrated wafer, he steals Christ; and the adventures of Christ in the burglar’s establishment may be left to the imagination. If a wicked apostate priest cares to use his power, to make Christ for a ribald gathering of sceptics, he can. Catholics, seriously believe that this (the "black mass") has been repeatedly done at Paris. The Church cannot take away the magical power even from an apostate priest. If I seriously and intentionally say the correct words, in the correct way and the correct dead language, over a piece of pure bread, the deed is done; and Christ, in the sincere belief of every Catholic, is in my power. The reader may object that I cannot do this, because I do not believe I have the power, and belief and intention are essential. But most Catholics would stoutly assert that I do believe I have the power, and am not sincere in my profession of scepticism!
Let me repeat that I am not in the least caricaturing or misrepresenting Catholic belief, or describing an ancient belief which the educated Catholic of today does not accept literally. If my pen at times slips into frivolity, the nature of the subject may surely be pleaded in extenuation. The persistence of such beliefs in cities like London, Boston, and New York must excite any normal sense of humour. But the reader will find, on questioning a Catholic, however well educated, that he solemnly believes these things.
I have referred, in passing, to the priest bearing wafers to the laity. This is the ceremony of "holy communion," an advanced version of a primitive practice of receiving the virtues of the god which is well known in savage religions. After consuming his own wafer, the priest bears a gold vessel containing hundreds of smaller wafers, which he has simultaneously consecrated, to a rail at which lay Catholics kneel, with open mouths and closed eyes, to receive Christ. All must be fasting; though how many drops of water – in washing the teeth, for instance – it would take "to break the fast" is disputed.
The ceremony I have described is the "low" or ordinary daily mass. On Sundays and festivals the mass is set to chant and music, and a choir (often composed of "heretics and unbelievers") renders the sacred words, as composed by gifted opera writers like Gounod and Rationalists like Mozart and Beethoven. To any thoughtful observer, who quite understands the central belief of the rite, the performance then becomes ludicrous in the extreme. Rome has several times seen the profanity of this operatic performance, and endeavoured to restrict the music to a simple and solemn chant. But this "High Mass" is the chief money-gathering ceremony of the day, and the most attractive to non-Catholics so that the Church has in this case successfully resisted the reforming zeal of one or two modern Popes.
Such is "the unbloody sacrifice of the mass," as the Church calls it; but we have not yet done with the eucharist. A special large wafer is consecrated and reserved in the "tabernacle"; a safe, with highly ornamental front, in the middle of the altar. A second silver or gold vessel in the safe – for burglars have little respect for beliefs – contains small wafers to be taken to the bedridden. In Catholic countries this is done processionally, with bell and candle; but in Protestant lands the priest dare show no outward sign of his awful burden. Many a priest whom you meet walking, in what seems to the profane eye a quite ordinary way, along the streets of London or Manchester has God in his vest-pocket. The large wafer in the tabernacle, which explains the red lamp before the altar and the deep reverences of the more pious Catholics in church, is taken out on Sunday night and set, above the altar, in a jewelled gold vessel; though the jewels are almost invariably glass, and the gold is washed silver. At the close the priest blesses the people with the vessel, so that the ceremony is popularly known as "Benediction."
This is the doctrine, this the possession, on which Catholics pride themselves above their neighbours. It is to communicate this priceless blessing to the benighted non-Catholic that the zeal of the faithful is stirred, and the laity are enlisted by the clergy in the work of "conversion." I leave it to the reader to say if there is in the whole range of modern life a more marvellous illustration of intellectual stupor; a more singular ground for sectarian vanity; a more weird survival in a civilized age of primitive belief and practice.
The sacrament of "confirmation" proceeds on the admirable theory that. when young folk attain, or approach, the age of puberty they need "confirming" – that is to say, strengthening. It may seem ungracious to cavil, but one wonders why the Almighty grants this strength only through a bishop, and as part of a very antique and – to the young folk – totally unintelligible ritual. All that I recollect of my confirmation-day is that a portly bishop read a vast amount of mysterious Latin, and then lightly daubed each of us on the forehead with a very sacred oil; and there were so many of us, and he was so hurried, that he stuck an episcopal finger in my eye. The "sacrament" is, of course, merely a part of the system which raises a priestly caste, to their great advantage, above the common crowd.
So it is with the sacrament of "holy orders," or the ordination of the clergy. The ritual is a maze, a stupendous collection of archaic prayers and mystic actions, to the onlooker. It is supposed to be so potent that henceforward the priest can order devils about, forgive sins, and turn bread into Christ. This your Catholic neighbour literally believes.
The sacrament of "matrimony" requires little discussion. For at least six centuries after the establishment of Christianity the laity obstinately refused to submit their marriages to the clergy, and they freely used the right of divorce. The notion of a divine institution of this sacrament is a wonderful piece of audacity. It was men like Hildebrand, completing the enslavement of the people to the priests, who at last secured for the Church complete control of marriage. As a "sacrament" the new type of marriage was indissoluble; and the morality of countries where the Church still resists the right to dissolve unhappy marriages tells its own story. The whole thing is part of the determination of the priests to rule and to exact fees.
"Extreme unction" (or last anointing) is the final "channel of grace." It is given only in grave danger of death, so that, when the priest announces his intention to inflict it, the Catholic’s chief thought is: "My God, has it come to that?" Essentially it is the daubing of the eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and feet of the dying person with one of the many sacred greases; the accompanying Latin formula charms away the sins committed by those members. In the naïve Middle Ages the loins also were anointed! Our more refined age has discovered that Christ did not really insist on that.
These are six of the seven sacraments, the glory and distinctive flower of Catholic belief, the most elaborate system of magic which any civilized religion ever invented. From first to last they are designed to enhance the power and prestige of the clergy. In their ritual and their fundamental ideas they are as alien from, as antagonistic to, the whole spirit of modern times as is alchemy or astrology. This is the set of beliefs to which the simple Catholic believes he will one day convert the whole United Kingdom! In fine, this is the set of beliefs which God, the Catholic says, was so deeply concerned to maintain in their purity that he overlooked all the horrors of the Middle Ages and all the corruption of the Popes and the Papacy! But I have still to consider "the sacrament of penance," the most remarkable element of a truly remarkable system.