Why We Are Catholics


Why I Am a Catholic (1932) is a collection of essays by Hilaire Belloc, Archbishop Alban Goodier, Ronald Knox, C.C. Martindale and novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith. Their collective defense of the faith is well worth studying. Another reason for studying Belloc and friends is that much has happened in the world to make us wonder how the Church has lasted two thousand years and still offers us a safe and sane path out of an increasingly unsafe and insane age.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

Belloc begins by admitting frankly that the first reason he is a Catholic is that he was born a Catholic. This, of course, is not a decisive reason for being a Catholic, any more than it would be a decisive reason to be an adult atheist who since childhood has learned to avoid religion like the plague. So, Belloc asserts, the real questions to be answered are the adult questions: what we are, why we should exist, how we should exist, and where we are going. When all other distractions are put aside, these are the fundamental and inescapable questions that every human being must address sooner or later; the questions that make all of us, whether we like it or not,  philosophers of one school or another.

The first school of pure philosophy mentioned by Belloc is skeptical materialism. It is a dead-end philosophy. It offers no answers beyond those supplied by physics, chemistry, and mathematics, which cannot reply to the questions most dear to our hearts. The reason for this is that the questions are personal, and science deals only with the impersonal. There is no personal authority in science to assure us of how we came to be, how we should live our lives, and what lies beyond this life, if anything. It is one’s Catholic faith that supplies our need to find answers that simultaneously appeal to the heart and to the head, for man is neither all heart nor all head.

Men lose the Faith indeed, as one may lose the sense of taste, or any other of the lesser approaches to reality; but when this calamity falls upon them never do they cease to remember with anguish the sense of perfect adjustment whereof they have been deprived…. It is not true that the Church is but one of many warring creeds and varying religions. There is but one Authority on earth which claims to reveal to men their nature and their destiny. All else is opinion, habit of life, unreasoned affirmation or partial pickings-and-choosings from from the entire Faith. All else either borrows from that central thing (remaining schismatic or heretical) or is separate from it, yet not conclusive…. And on that minor argument of the tests by which we might know what such a Divine society would be if such a thing existed, what of its Claim? It would claim absolute right, It would claim to speak with the Voice of God, It would demand (in its own sphere, though only in its own sphere), obedience. It would, alone of all things upon this earth, refuse to compromise. And by that test also the Faith is the Faith.

The argument from materialism against the Church is purely cerebral. But other arguments are more aligned or infected with suspicion and hate. There are those who simply suspect the Church is not what it claims to be, or that one is not obliged to believe it so. This would be a reasonable objection were it not for the fact that most of those objecting have no way of knowing the Faith is not what it claims to be. They have not approached, have not investigated it, have not lived the faith, have not known its demands and its joys and its comforts. A miracle would not convince them, since they do not believe in miracles. The persisting beauty of the Faith would not convince them, since they close their eyes and their ears to it. In short, they have not entered the Household of God to find repose and conviction.

And then there are those outside the Church who believe that centuries ago the Household went up in flames with this or that heretical doctrine they find so disagreeable. Yes, they surely believe in Jesus, even the divinity of Jesus, and they believe in certain doctrines he preached, but they do not believe that he established a Church that preached these doctrines infallibly for all time, as they would have to have done if the Household was instituted by Jesus himself; for if only one doctrine, the Catholic doctrine, could have been heretical, why couldn’t they all be? For those who think this way, Belloc’s contempt is openly declared.

Yet another attack upon the integrity of Christian teachings is that posed by those who would have us believe that all the scriptures pertaining to Jesus were polluted by being not divinely inspired, but rather being man-made. It is objected that the original handwritten documents now are lost and their copies and translations have been corrupted, accretion after accretion, by those who were carried away with inventing a  new religion based on a newly invented mythology. This argument also does not hold true, Belloc insists, because throughout the New Testament there is a general consistency that would not have been possible were the gospels and epistles written by men so far apart from each other in space and time. There would have been blatant contradictions, and these do not exist. On the other hand, what we see in the early Church is a resolute dedication by its leaders that was “direct, sincere, and overwhelming.” Together they put forth their written word by the authority of he who granted them the right to do so, and who made clear not that he had written a Gospel, but he had ordained a Church to write it for him. Clearly, from the start, the Gospels did not produce the Church; the Church produced the Gospels. And ever since, scholars of every description in every department of knowledge have been trying to turn that fact upside down. Belloc chooses not to deny Christ, but rather to accept him from start to finish as the only hope of the world.

Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J. (1869-1939)

Archbishop Goodlier agrees with Belloc that the first reason anybody is what he is will be that he was born into the milieu that formed his thoughts and beliefs. Only converts escape this classification because, after careful reflection and perhaps a necessary struggle due to some event or realization, they find other thoughts and beliefs more agreeable to them. The second reason anyone is a Catholic is because he has been brought up loyal to the religion of Jesus Christ and has find no credible reason to abandon it. It was, upon reaching adulthood and learning about the history of the Church, both in England and world-wide, that he discovered the Church had rightly named itself Catholic (Universal). As he puts it in highly sonorous prose:

No one who has been about the world can avoid the overwhelming fact of the Catholic Church. She is everywhere. She is with every kind and condition of men, with rich and poor, educated and uneducated, ruler and ruled, free man and slave, civilized and savage; there is not a race, a nation, a family, and individual, with which she cannot be, and is not, at home. She is nearest to the poles and she is all round the equator; where armies and explorers stop, she goes forward. Often enough armies and explorers find that she has gone before them; often enough, when they return to their base, she remains. She is a living power which goes on when armies perish and explorers die; when traders have done their best or their worst, and have retired from the land they have bled, she will stay behind and heal the wound. Where she goes, civilization follows; she can tame where no other power on earth can do anything, she can educate where others find it hopeless; above all she can instill principles of right and wrong, of justice and mercy, of humanity and love, of ideals beyond this life which lift up life itself to another plane, such that the meanest of mankind discovers it worth while to live.

It is that persistent and ubiquitous survival of the Church that Goodier finds so remarkable, even miraculous. There is nothing in the world to rival it. Why wouldn’t it occur to to those without the Faith that if there is a God, and if that God seeks to communicate with the world, then there is no organized body of souls that can more reasonably claim to be the vehicle of God’s providential nurturing than the Catholic Church? All the Catholics of the world know that wherever they go in the world they will be home in a Catholic church, for all Catholics are one family as God the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son are one family of Loved and Beloved. So it is, Goodlier concludes, that God “is the living vine, we are its living branches; and the life of the branches does not differ from the life of the vine.”

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957)

Monsignor Knox, being a convert from the Church of England, begins by emphasizing not why he is a convert from unbelief, but rather why he converted from one type of belief, Anglican, to another type, Roman Catholic. To begin, he points out that the Roman Church alone claims to have direct lineage from the Apostles and Peter. He does not see how this can be contested, given the promise of the scripture writers and the early Fathers that the Church must be one and undivided; so then, all other branches claiming to be the Church founded by Christ must be either schismatic or heretical. Even the Anglican Church can go no farther back than Queen Elizabeth. Only one Faith can find its way back from the Modern Age through the Renaissance through Medieval Europe through the Dark Ages through the fall of the Roman Empire through the dark and winding Catacombs all the way to Jerusalem where a man died on a Cross for the world’s salvation.

There follows, for Anglicans anyway, the irksome problem of identifying the final seat of infallible authority in all matters religious. Who or where is it? For Catholics it is in Rome, where the infallible authority of the Church reposes on a worldwide council of bishops headed by the Bishop of Rome. In England there is no such presumption of infallibility, nor is there anything but an Archbishop of Canterbury and a regional council of bishops to be assembled, who obtain their authority not from the successor of St. Peter, but rather from the successor of Queen Elizabeth who can hardly be said to have inherited her authority to rule the Church, as Peter and his successors did, from Jesus Christ. For Knox this explains why Anglicans ceased to use the term “infallible” in their theological writings and replace it with the term “authority.” How could infallibility have been conferred on Elizabeth? Moreover, how could it be conferred on a council of Anglican bishops contentious with each other on doctrinal matters?

Knox poses a case in point. Let us look at the doctrine of hell. Jesus refers to its existence frequently, and up to modern times its reality was never doubted by the faithful. But once the doctrine of infallibility was challenged by certain Anglican scholars, it became fashionable to question whether Jesus really meant what he said, and maybe we had best leave the question of hell to our private instincts. What a convenient position for the modernists to take! Jesus, they say, is reckoned to have used language that must have been deceptive, purely metaphorical let us say, for how could the punishment of hell fit any human crime no matter how loathsome? Rank relativism was thus introduced into the teaching of Anglican theology. (Knox did not live to see it, but perhaps he would not have been surprised at the ascent of the new liberalism so powerful as to produce among the Anglican clergy a kinder and gentler (though again certainly not scriptural) attitude toward the sin of sodomy that was roundly condemned by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans.) Knox closes his essay with remarks about an important lesson learned by joining the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic, too, you acquire, somehow, a long perspective. Your mind is taken up into the ages, and contemporary movements, whether they be favorable or adverse to the cause of religion, are viewed more calmly, because the background against which you see them is that of two thousand years, not that of a century or two. And this makes for an interior peace, which you will often forget in the strain of conflict, but it will return.

Rev. C.C. Martindale (1879-1963)

Martindale, another Anglican convert, begins with an account of his youth at school and college, which was eclectic to say the least. Being of a rebellious nature, whatever he was taught he managed somehow to revolt against. At Harrow, concerned friends handed him a copy of Littledale’s Plain Reasons against Joining the Church of Rome, whereupon after a thorough reading he toyed with the idea of joining and learned some Catholic prayers. At Harrow he acquired a taste for Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine; in short, a taste for the classics, though he was hardly proficient at them. He had an older cousin who converted to Catholicism and prayed for him, apparently to no avail as he drifted inconsolably into the fashionable and subjectivist agnosticism of the day.

Then, all at once, he came to see that the Faith was believable. All the arguments for it were no longer necessary, and all the arguments against it were useless. He had come at last to submit to (what else could he call it?) the joyful grace of God. It was a conflicting grace, for it was at first joyful, yet not easy, to be a Catholic. Hadn’t other converts noticed that? Much needed getting used to. One of the things he had to learn was how to answer those who questioned why he had become a Catholic. Another question he had to answer was why he remained a Catholic. To both questions he answered over and over that only one answer seemed possible any longer: the grace of God had lifted him out of his old self into a new self. As he put it: “I confess that atheism being merely negative and therefore dead, and materialism much the same, I could never have been attracted to them, since I liked and like what is alive and human.”

Moreover, Martindale affirms, the idea of the Incarnation appealed to him immensely, even though it might be intellectually unfathomable how God could enter his own creation. It was yet an affirmation that Matter matters very much, for only by entering creation could God show that he wanted a relationship with all his children. Until that happened, God would only be some kind of Platonic ideal. He entered the world so that he could explain in a meaningful way how very personal his relationship with us must be. It is for this reason that all the Catholic mysteries and sacraments, so often ridiculed by unbelievers, become a scratching at the surface of God’s inner being, and an assurance that though we may never know God perfectly (how can the created understand fully the Creator?) we may yet confidently submit to his desire for our final and immortal happiness in Him.

Martindale concludes confidently that he has explained to himself, if to no one else, why he is and remains a Catholic.

I must finish by professing that I believe all that the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches, because she teaches it. I consider that the arguments adduced in favor of her claims are solid (though not coercive) and those adduced against them are flimsy (though sometimes plausible): I repeat, Faith is not the product of arguments; arguments show me that if I do believe, I am thoroughly reasonable in doing so, and even, that were I not to believe, I would be in the face of a singular problem – I would have to wonder what obscure element in myself was setting my will against yielding to the pressure of those arguments, for, I would wonder, if they were so true as they appeared, why did not God give me, precisely, the help necessary to believe on his word in that which they supported…. I well understand why many an upright and intelligent man does not understand what the Faith is and offers; he has never seen it. But how a man, who has begun to see it, fails to desire it, baffles me.

Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956)

Sheila Kaye-Smith discovered early in life – though she had been baptized in the Anglican Church – that all her sensibilities were drawn to the Church of Rome. At the age of 38 she formally converted upon studying the life and writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Much of the reason for her conversion relied upon her awareness that the Church of England seemed not preoccupied with Holiness (a mark of the true Church) so much as with “comfort, ease, efficiency, and peace.” Indeed, why had the Church of England no official saints listed later than the 12th century? Yet the Catholic Church has never stopped venerating the saints and continues finding new ones in every century.

Nor did it seem to her that theological divisions within the Church of England contributed to another great mark of the Church: Unity; for “there cannot be surely any wilder assortment of religious opinions than the Church of England.” The same condition prevails with respect to a third mark of the true Church: Catholic (Universal). Compared to the Catholic Church,  whose appeal has always been to rich and poor alike, the appeal of the Anglican Church is more to a “certain limited class and type. A likewise assessment is made of the falling away of the male sex at Anglican services, where, unlike Catholic services, often as not four/fifths of the congregation are female. And again, the Anglican Church seems very definitely to exclude children from the altar. “Surely an Anglican altar is the most exclusive thing on earth, with its tiny proportion of men and its entire absence of children.”

Finally, is the Anglican Church apostolic? Does it descend in a direct line of authority from the Apostles? There are arguments for and against inherited authority after the break of Henry VIII with Rome. But all these arguments come down to one rather startling fact. What apostolic authority is actually exercised by the Anglican clergy? According to Kaye-Smith, Anglicans are among the least catechized Christians in the world. Laity and clergy alike are pretty much induced to believe whatever they please (one Anglican divine even disallowed the existence of hell). This surely is not the exercise of apostolic authority laid down by St. Paul himself. Nor is there credible hope of some Anglicans that unity with Rome is possible. At each moment of ecumenical outreach the official Anglican position moves increasingly toward modernism and heresy, perhaps in the hope that Rome will concede every step of the way into false doctrines. That dream is as illusory as planting seeds in sand and expecting a lush forest that will reach toward the stars; for it is impossible that Rome (despite her undeniable lapses into stupidity and venality) will ever betray or defeat the promise of Christ that his Church cannot be overcome at the gates of hell.

Post Script

Prospective converts will also see, when they study history, that the Catholic Church produced the Nicene Creed; that it collected and authenticated the books of the New Testament; that it defended the Western world from the violent advance of Islam into Europe; that it promoted intellectual advances toward modern science; that it established the hospitals and universities of Europe in the Middle Ages; that it was a Catholic who invented the printing press and published the first Holy Bible, so that the word of God could eventually be sent by book into every home in Christendom. Wouldn’t all these marks of distinction be signs of the true Church of Christ rather than the “harlot” mentioned by Martin Luther and others? As John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century convert from the Anglican Church, said about his conversion: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics