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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer


THE system of making priests I have described in my Twelve Years in a Monastery. Recruits are now sought at a very early age, and usually from the less educated class. In order that I may state the case quite accurately, I run over, in memory, the list of my fellow-students and the students who were later put under my charge. Of thirty whom I recall, fifteen were sons of small Irish farmers or shopkeepers, and ten of the remainder were Irish or of Irish extraction, and of the working class. Two solicitors and a chartered accountant found their way into the category, but all three found their way out of it. My priestly colleagues were similar in type. The theory was that we kept our eyes open for promising Catholic boys, and were prepared to exact little or no fee for their training. But even under these conditions the supply was very scanty, and the intellectual qualification had to be reduced to a disgraceful level. Few of them would, in "the world," have ever earned £150 a year. A very large proportion are the sons of Irish peasants or farmers.

This was the supply for a monastic order (the Order of St. Francis), and is not quite typical. But the secular (or ordinary parochial) clergy is not much more fortunate in its recruits. Jesuits and Benedictines, who control large schools and induce some of the pupils to join them, have more access to the Catholic middle-class, though they do not as a rule secure the more intelligent of their pupils. The Church now, in all countries, has a difficulty in securing the proper type of recruits, and the theoretical qualifications have to be considerably lowered. As a rule, the priesthood is recruited by the adoption of young boys to whom ordination means promotion to a position and prestige which their personal merits would not otherwise obtain for them.

This casts the burden of their training almost entirely upon the Church, and their education is generally very poor. Very few priests could read any Latin author (except Cæsar) at sight, or make much sense of Horace, Tacitus, or Juvenal. Of Greek they have, as a rule, received only an elementary knowledge, which they soon forget. Of science, history, and philosophy, in the modern sense, they, as a rule, know nothing.

Science is taught in very few training-colleges for the clergy, and then only in the most elementary form and for a very short time. History is represented only by a few lessons, from Catholic writers, on Church history.

Lest I seem to speak merely from prejudice, let me illustrate the point. It is sometimes plaintively said by Catholics that I now use against "my mother the Church" the instruction she gave me. This is ridiculous. I received lessons even in Latin only for nine months, and was barely taught to read Cicero. It is by personal and private labour that I acquired a complete command of Latin. Of Greek I was scarcely taught the elements, and was again thrown upon my own exertions; and the same must be said of French. I had an elementary course of Hebrew and Syriac, which is now of no use to me. Other languages I have acquired entirely since I left the Church. In science and history I did not receive one single lesson in the whole course of my training; and, as I said, my "philosophy" had as little relation to modern philosophy as astrology has to astronomy.

The value of the education given to me in the Church was made plain the moment I returned to "the world." Although I had headed every class I ever entered, and had by immense personal exertion gone leagues beyond the rudimentary lessons I had received, I could not get a position as teacher at two pounds a week. My friend Mr. Forbes, of Balliol, a generous sympathizer, regretfully told me, after a short examination, that my "education" was quite useless.

And this is the general experience. While I was a priest three of my colleagues, one a youngish man of considerable energy, secretly left the Church and tried to earn their living. Each failed, and had to return; and I presume that they are to-day, with scepticism in their hearts, eloquently expounding the faith to audiences who shudder at the mention of my name. Since those days I have been asked for advice or assistance by many priests who had lost their faith and would leave the Church. In nearly every case the man proved unable to earn his living, and he either did not venture out of or returned to his clerical nest. The Church must have a high proportion of such men. No Catholic can be sure that the priest to whom he confesses his sins, or whose eloquent sermons on the faith he so much admires, is not a secret sceptic.

The sermons of the bulk of the clergy will, if any person has the courage to hear a few, confirm my estimate of their culture. Catholic literature affords still stronger confirmation. I have examined in the first chapter of this section some samples of what professes to be the highest Catholic scholarship. The extraordinary statements and omissions of these writers are largely due to "zeal," but it is also a fact that few of them know history. How much of the historical literature of our time, apart from "Catholic Truth," is written by Catholic priests? What is the standard of scholarship of the myriads of Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, and so on, who have the most ample leisure to devote to study, no anxiety about income, and every incentive to write? It is disreputable. The small books and pamphlets they issue, generally through "Truth Societies," are painful reading to any scholar. Whether the subject be history, philosophy, or science, their statements and their authorities are hopelessly antiquated, their ignorance is vast, their points are trifling.

So far I have spoken of the intellectual culture of the clergy, or its absence. On the moral side the situation is analogous. In theory, only boys of exceptional character and deep religious feeling must be accepted for the priesthood. In practice, owing to the dearth of vocations, the Church has to lower the moral and spiritual, as well as the intellectual, qualifications. My students, fellow-students, and colleagues had very rarely any exceptional character or deep religious feeling. Of eight boys under my charge at one time I had to report one as hopelessly stupid, and he was reluctantly dismissed; and another as, apparently, addicted to secret vice, but he was clever, and was not dismissed. The boy makes the man. The general level of character among priests is not nearly as high as, let us say, among teachers or doctors.

It will therefore be understood that the sexual strain upon the priesthood is too great for very many of them to endure. They either make their "vow of chastity" before they attain puberty, and do not realize what it means, or they are already too deeply pledged to the priestly career, and too eager for its prestige, to draw back. The system of celibacy is from every point of view utterly mischievous, and more than once priests have agitated for its abolition. When we reflect that the clergy are, as a body, not of exceptionally high character (however "nice" the ladies of the parish may deem them), that they eat well and drink even better, that numbers of them are sceptics, and that they daily pay solitary visits to ladies, one does not need very much knowledge of human nature to forecast the result.

To make a precise statement as to the extent of priestly immorality is not possible. My clerical career was short, and a young priest, such as I was, is generally shielded from knowledge of "scandals." My most esteemed colleagues deliberately lied to me on one occasion in order to conceal such a case. Yet much came to my knowledge. Of the cases to which I may refer without indelicacy there are the liaison which I have already mentioned; another colleague whose name was currently given to a certain lady; a young priest who confided to me that he rivalled Don Juan in the number of his assignations; another who told me that he slept habitually with his housekeeper, who turned out on further inquiry to be his sister; another who admitted to me that he left the Church solely to marry a woman, and has since returned to it; another whose servant told me that she was enceinte. There were, in addition, many cases of isolated misconduct, with servants or parishioners; and it may be assumed that the many who leave, and are starved into "conversion," do not strictly observe their vows. There is, plainly, a large amount of priestly immorality, but it is not a matter on which one can make precise statements. It is, naturally, more secluded than a case that I saw in a Melbourne Hotel a few years ago, where a burly young Irish priest, partly intoxicated, walked flagrantly upstairs with a barmaid. It was not a residential hotel. Ex-priests with whom I have discussed, men of more experience than I, say that about half the priests do not believe and the majority are immoral.

Drinking is, as will be supposed, a prevailing habit; but here again it is futile to seek statistics of intoxication. The anti-Catholic American press and literature abound in detailed charges of both vice and drunkenness and may dispense me from pursuing an unpleasant subject. I have dealt with it, as fully as I care to do, in my autobiography, Twelve Years in a Monastery. The clergy are quite as human as the Popes, and the heavy pressure upon their character very frequently proves too great for them.

In my autobiography I have also explained how it is that the defects of the clergy are so largely unknown to the Catholic laity. The utmost precautions are taken to prevent scandal. In my own monastic body it was forbidden under pain of eternal damnation to drink a drop of alcohol within two miles of the monastery! Even this drastic rule broke down at times, but it had the general effect of concealing from the people the very considerable imbibing capacity of their priests. Inside the monastery the supply of drink was more than generous. No one took less than two pints of strong ale a day, and there were frequent carouses with wine and whisky. Actual intoxication was rare, but not punished, as long as it was kept within the house.

The same care was taken to prevent any kind of "scandal" from reaching the ears of the laity. The superior of our monastery at Forest Gate (London) suddenly disappeared, and not only the laity, but young priests like myself, were assured that he had "gone on the foreign missions." I learned months later that he was at the time living, as a layman, only three miles away! He could not earn his living and so he returned. As is well known, the Catholic doctrine about truthfulness is peculiar. It is sometimes believed that the doctrine of "mental reservation" is a medieval eccentricity which modern Catholic theologians no longer countenance. This is entirely wrong. I have before me the volume of Moral Theology (by Father Lehmkuhl), from which I was taught that remarkable "science of sin." The Jesuit author (I, 453) explains, and it is general Catholic teaching, that a mental reservation is "sometimes lawful and even necessary," and that where it is lawful one may even confirm one's words (which obviously deceive the hearer) on oath! The human justification of this kind of lying is said to be that sometimes the inquirer "has no right to the full truth." The Protestant will, however, be amazed to hear that the Jesuit bases his doctrine boldly upon the Gospels (Mark xiii, 32 and John vii, 8). The doctrine is frequently twisted so as to cover the most flagrant untruthfulness. I have given experiences elsewhere, and Count Hoensbroech describes the same, or an even worse, state of things in Jesuit seminaries. [1]

In regard to all these matters the world of the clergy is as securely closed against the laity as is the world of modern culture. The fiction of holiness must be sustained in every respect. The laity must be induced to think that the magic of ordination or consecration lends a triple armour to weak human nature. When a great prelate, whom all have regarded as almost superhuman in character, dies, his life is written in heroics; and the laity are deliberately duped.

I am tempted to illustrate this from the life of Cardinal Manning. I should be sorry to lower any man's reasonable appreciation of Manning. Many years after his death, and after my secession, I heard, at first hand, a story of Manning which may here see the light. My informant, an ex-nun, a lady of high character, had been converted by Manning and allowed or induced to enter a convent. Some years later, shocked and disgusted by the life of this London convent, she walked out, in her nun's costume, and sought Manning's house at Westminster. "What have you done?" he asked gravely; but he saw her draw in a long breath, to begin a long story, and he quietly checked her. "What are you going to do?" he asked. She said firmly that she would demand her money back from that convent, return to "the world," and discard Catholicism; and Cardinal Manning secretly assisted her and secured her money for her. It was, in the Church's code, a mortal sin, entailing a very dire eternal damnation on Henry Manning. But it is the finest thing I ever heard of him or any other prelate.

Yet not on those lines must the biography of a Catholic prelate be written. It happens that the task of writing Manning's life was entrusted to one who had some feeling of human candour, and that my chief friend and colleague, F. David Fleming, was able to follow, and describe to me, the progress of the work. There were to be omissions, of course: notably of the fact that (so F. David said) Manning had a daughter. But the long and bitter feuds with Cardinal Newman and the Jesuits and others were to be related. They were not related. Pressure was used; and Manning's very human nature turned out, when the volume finally appeared, to be of the usual stained-glass-saint variety.

From Pope to curate the clergy are much more human and less religious than the laity think. But our monasteries and convents, the Catholic will exclaim, surely you will leave about these the odour of sanctity for which we venerate them! Most assuredly I will not, but I have written so much about them that. a short summary will suffice here.

All that I have written in this chapter about the relative poorness of character of the clergy applies especially to monks, since it was among these. that my life was cast. They, above all, ensnare their recruits as young as possible. In the monstrous crime of laying a life-burden of celibacy upon the immature they sin far worse than the secular clergy, for they encourage the taking of the vow at sixteen. They plead that "scarcity" of vocations compels this, and I know no more sordid reason for a thoroughly despicable practice. Let them perish if they cannot get mature men to embrace their antiquated and ridiculous ideals. And they know well the issue. They, by painting in high colours the prestige of the clerical state, create artificially what they call a "vocation" in the mind of young boys whose prospect in life is not brilliant, and in mature age these boys will simply get as much of the comfort of life as they can.

The result is that the monastic system is a fraud and hypocrisy from beginning to end. Of immoral men or drunkards the proportion is much the same as I have suggested for the clergy in general. In summing up my experience I said, long ago, that about one monk in ten is deeply religious, and about one in ten quite unscrupulous. Reviewing my memory, with more mature judgment, and much more knowledge, I should say that less than one in ten has a deep religious feeling, and probably about half are immoral. At all events, seven or eight in ten have no such religious sentiment as their profession demands, and their life would be intolerable but for the generous supply of liquor, the almost complete neglect (in the house) of their regulations, the possesion by each of money (in defiance of their vows), and the incessant visiting of their lady parishioners. Their long religious ceremonies are an empty and dreary formalism. Their life is, in spirit and letter, one sustained defiance of their professions.

Monasteries on the continent and in South America are even more sensual and hypocritical than in England and America; and there is little to choose between the various monastic or semi-monastic bodies. I have letters from South America describing clerical morals exactly as they were in the Middle Ages, and Catholic writers have admitted that until the Revolution priests in Spain were habitually and frivolously immoral. From a desire to be entirely honest with my readers, I said in my early work that the Passionists, the Trappists, and the Cistercians seemed to lead a stricter life. A few years later I met an ex-Passionist, of the Highgate community, the Rev. James Waring, who told me that I was entirely wrong as far as his body were concerned. As to the Trappists, read Father J. B. Mooney's account of his life among them. In fine, an American friend of high character told me an extraordinary experience he had with the Cistercians of the Grand Chartreuse in France. A traveller in their famous liqueur took him at night to the monastery, and took also a quantity of the lightest French and Spanish illustrated papers; and far into the night a large party of the monks caroused and laughed with them over the illustrations.

As to the nuns, I will repeat what I have always said. I have always found them ladies in my limited experience; far more human, less religious, far less happy than Catholics imagine, but sincerely trying to practise their professions. I am certainly not in a position to deny darker accounts which are sometimes given. Local corruption is always possible. But I have had no reason to suspect it, and the several ex-nuns I have met in London confirm me. The burden usually undertaken in early and innocent youth is intolerable. The life is petty, vexatious, and generally useless. The "Holy Mother the Church" which seduces fair and happy young girls to enter such homes for life before they know what life and love mean is a criminal against humanity.

That is the upshot of the matter. The Catholic will wearily protest that these things do not affect his belief. He never, he says, pretended that Popes or priests, monks or nuns, were "impeccable." He finds wonderful consolation in that blessed word. But he continues, all the same, to speak about his Holy Father, and Holy Church, and holy orders, and holy monks and nuns. He continues, with a monumental irony, to slight Protestantism because it has "none of these things"!

The minute and dreary picture of the monastic world which I give in my Twelve Years in a Monastery he is taught to regard as a piece of bilious mendacity. Yet when Father Bede Wrigley, quite the most upright of my old colleagues, saw a copy of that book in my library, the only censure he had was that I had no right to describe "our private life." And when the book was discussed at a clerical dinner in London, Cardinal Bourne - so one who was present and heard him told me - merely said: "It is true - though, of course, it is just a sweeping together of the worse things." It is strictly and scrupulously true, and the whole truth; as is also the picture I have drawn in a pseudonymous novel (ostensibly by "Arnold Wright") entitled In the Shade of the Cloister. It is true of all monasticism, and of the general condition of the clergy. And if that is so, the Catholic may judge whether he is or is not kept by the clergy and the Catholic writers in a fool's paradise; whether there is quite so much of the Holy Ghost in his Church as he imagined.

Note.- That there is in this chapter and in my Twelve Tears in a Monastery no exaggeration - that, on the contrary, my youth in the Church prevented me from learning the whole truth has now been shown by the amazing conviction of thousands of monks and clerics in Germany and Austria of the worst corruption. While Catholics repeatedly got English papers to say that the charges were Nazi slanders, no paper and no publisher would permit me to tell the full truth. But in my Papacy in Politics To-day (Ch. V) I have at least been able to show that the trials were unimpeachable: held in Catholic cities, by Catholic officials and police, with Catholic witnesses alone, and accepted by German Catholics.

[1] Fourteen Years a Jesuit, II, 302-1.

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