Friday, 1 June 2012

Rage against the Church: Bernanos speaks to the zealous

One of the projects which French author Georges Bernanos conceived late in life was a biography of Martin Luther. A little contextualisation is in order. Bernanos was living in Majorca at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. At first a supporter of Franco, he was so scandalised by what he saw the nationalists do on the island that he wrote a polemical book-length tract, Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune, to denounce what he had seen.

The book is also a kind of jeremiad against the clergy whom Bernanos saw as complicit in the crimes of nationalist soldiers. In one memorable passage, he imagines a bishop having to limp around because of the human skull that had somehow become wedged onto his shoe heel: there's no point shaking it, says Bernanos, it's not going to come off!

The subsequent task Bernanos found himself comtemplating, however, was how to continue believing in the Church when he felt so deeply scandalised by the actions of her ministers. He sketched out much of his response to this dilemma in a fragment which was to have become a biography of Martin Luther - himself deeply scandalised by the Church - but which never saw the light of day until its draught was found among papers recovered from the house Bernanos abandoned when he returned from Brasil to France in 1947.

Here then are some of the juicier quotations. I offer them for those - friends and strangers, old and new - who are currently raging against the Church.

One cannot deny that in the Church there is a form of mediocrity which I've no need to find a name for since it has had one for two thousand years. There are Pharisees in the Church. Phariseeism continues to circulate in the blood stream of this great body whenever charity grows cold [...] Phariseeism is a feverless suppuration, a cold abcess which causes no pain. Doubtless the Church is both human and divine and so is not unfamiliar with any of the human vices, but Phariseeism is a particular kind of crime that cruelly tests the patience of the saints, while merely making poor Christians like me either bitter or disgusted.

But I do not trust my indignation or my disgust: indignation never saved anybody and it has probably led to the loss of many souls. All those simoniacal orgies in 16th century Rome would have been of little use to the devil if they had not brought about this unique achievement of casting Luther into despair, and with him two thirds of the sorrowing Christian world. Luther and his followers despaired of the Church, and whoever despairs of the Church risks - by a curious paradox - despairing sooner or later of Man. Protestantism from this perspective seems to me like a compromise with despair. [...]

Churchmen would have willingly put up with Luther's joining his voice to that of others who were more illustrious and holier and who were constantly denouncing such disorders. But Martin Luther's tragedy was to try to reform them. Let's try to grasp the nuance here. [...]

It is a fact of experience that nothing can be reformed in the Church by ordinary means. Whoever attempts to reform the Church by such means, the same means by which one would reform a temporal institution, not only fails in his entreprise, but ends up infallibly outside the Church. I say that, by some kind of tragic fate, he finds himself outside the Church before anyone has taken the trouble to exclude him. He renounces its spirit, its dogmas, he becomes its enemy without hardly realising, and if he attempts to turn back, each step takes him further away [...]

One can only reform the Church by suffering for her; one can only reform the visible Church by suffering for the invisible Church. One cannot reform the Church's vices except by pouring out the example of the most heroic virtue. It's possible that St Francis of Assisi was no less disgusted than Martin Luther by the debauchery and simony of prelates. It is even certain that they made him suffer more cruelly than Luther because he was a very different man from the German monk. But he did not defy iniquity or try to confront it; he threw himself into poverty, plunged himself into it as much as he could, as if it were the fountain of healing and purity. Instead of trying to rip from the hands of the Church her ill gotten goods, he filled her with invisible treasures, and under the guidance of this beggar, the heaps of gold and riches began to flower like a hedge in April. Can I say - in the hope of being understood better by some readers - that the Church does not need ccritics but poets? When there is a crisis in poetry, what is important is not to denounce the bad poets or even to hang them, but to write beautiful verse, to reopen the sacred fountains of inspiration.


JARay said...

This is very interesting and challenging Ches. Much food for thought to be had here. Thank you.

Enoch said...

I can see good things in these observations by Bernanos. I'm surprised no one has commented on it as yet, so I'll give it a go.

I like his comparison of Luther and St. Francis, especially where he said of St. Francis..."But he did not defy iniquity or try to confront it; he threw himself into poverty, plunged himself into it as much as he could, as if it were the fountain of healing and purity."

If we truly love the Church and our Lord Jesus Christ, suffering for them, even in the midst of scandal, and offering sacrifice for the greater good, would be a good (but difficult!) thing to do.

Balazs Mezei said...

Thanks for the quotes. Indeed, we need to write good poetry and stop criticizing some bad poets. I find myself precisely in the situation you aim at with publishing these quotes.

However, Bernanos did not have the chance to see Vatican II. I am not sure what he would have done facing those tremendous changes. Thomas Molnar, the author of the first monograph on Bernanos in the US (published in 1960), may serve as an illustration. Molnar simply lost ground after the late 1960s. He tried to redefine his approach, his subject matters, his philosophy, but the success was doubtful. He lost a spiritual home, the only ground on which he could stand firm.

I wonder if we may or may not say that these changes in the church went beyond what Bernanos describes as Luther's falling outside the church before excommunication. Perhaps the church herself has fallen out of herself...