The Psalmist says, “We went through fire and water”; nor is it possible to imagine trials fiercer or more various than those from which Catholicism has come forth uninjured, as out of the Egyptian sea or the Babylonian furnace.
First of all were the bitter persecutions of the Pagan Empire in the early centuries; then its sudden conversion, the liberty of Christian worship, the development of the cultus sanctorum, and the reception of Monachism into the ecclesiastical system. Then came the irruption of the barbarians, and the occupation by them of the orbis terrarum from the North, and by the Saracens from the South.
Meanwhile the anxious and protracted controversy concerning the Incarnation hung like some terrible disease upon the faith of the Church. Then came the time of thick darkness; and afterwards two great struggles, one with the material power, the other with the intellect, of the world, terminating in the ecclesiastical monarchy, and in the theology of the schools. And lastly came the great changes consequent upon the controversies of the sixteenth century.
Is it conceivable that any one of those heresies, with which ecclesiastical history abounds, should have gone through a hundredth part of these trials, yet have come out of them so nearly what it was before, as Catholicism has done?
Could such a theology as Arianism have lasted through the scholastic contest? or Montanism have endured to possess the world, without coming to a crisis, and failing? or could the imbecility of the Manichean system, as a religion, have escaped exposure, had it been brought into conflict with the barbarians of the Empire, or the feudal system?
A similar contrast discovers itself in the respective effects and fortunes of certain influential principles or usages, which have both been introduced into the Catholic system, and are seen in operation elsewhere.
When a system really is corrupt, powerful agents, when applied to it, do but develop that corruption, and bring it the more speedily to an end. They stimulate it preternaturally; it puts forth its strength, and dies in some memorable act.
Very different has been the history of Catholicism, when it has committed itself to such formidable influences. It has borne, and can bear, principles or doctrines, which in other systems of religion quickly degenerate into fanaticism or infidelity.
This might be shown at great length in the history of the Aristotelic philosophy within and without the Church; or in the history of Monachism, or of Mysticism; not that there has not been at first a conflict between these powerful and unruly elements and the Divine System into which they were entering, but that it ended in the victory of Catholicism.
The theology of St. Thomas, nay of the Church of his period, is built on that very Aristotelism, which the early Fathers denounce as the source of all misbelief, and in particular of the Arian and Monophysite heresies.
The exercises of asceticism, which are so graceful in St. Antony, so touching in St. Basil, and so awful in St. Germanus, do but become a melancholy and gloomy superstition even in the most pious persons who are cut off from Catholic communion.
And while the highest devotion in the Church is the mystical, and contemplation has been the token of the most singularly favored Saints, we need not look deeply into the history of modern sects, for evidence of the excesses in conduct, or the errors in doctrine, to which mystics have been commonly led, who have boasted of their possession of reformed truth, and have rejected what they called the corruptions of Catholicism.
It is true, there have been seasons when, from the operation of external or internal causes, the Church has been thrown into what was almost a state of deliquium; but her wonderful revivals, while the world was triumphing over her, is a further evidence of the absence of corruption in the system of doctrine and worship into which she has developed.
If corruption be an incipient disorganization, surely an abrupt and absolute recurrence to the former state of vigor, after an interval, is even less conceivable than a corruption that is permanent.
Now this is the case with the revivals I speak of. After violent exertion men are exhausted and fall asleep; they awake the same as before, refreshed by the temporary cessation of their activity; and such has been the slumber and such the restoration of the Church. She pauses in her course, and almost suspends her functions; she rises again, and she is herself once more; all things are in their place and ready for action.
Doctrine is where it was, and usage, and precedence, and principle, and policy; there may be changes, but they are consolidations or adaptations; all is unequivocal and determinate, with an identity which there is no disputing. Indeed it is one of the most popular charges against the Catholic Church at this very time, that she is “incorrigible”; change she cannot, if we listen to St. Athanasius or St. Leo; change she never will, if we believe the controversialist or alarmist of the present day.
Such were the thoughts concerning the “Blessed Vision of Peace,” of one whose long-continued petition had been that the Most Merciful would not despise the work of His own Hands, nor leave him to himself; while yet his eyes were dim, and his breast laden, and he could but employ Reason in the things of Faith.
And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have here found; regard it not as mere matter of present controversy; set not out resolved to refute it, and looking about for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself with the imagination that it comes of disappointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility, or other weakness.
Wrap not yourself round in the associations of years past; nor determine that to be truth which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations.
Time is short, eternity is long.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
Secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum.
– From Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which study ended in his conversion.
*Image: Cardinal John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais, 1881 [National Portrait Gallery , London]