The Church and the Common Mind

Arthur Joseph Penty

We saw that the basis of a Christian sociology was to be found in the mutual dependence of the love of God and one’s neighbour. But if ideas are to exercise a permanent influence on the world of affairs, it is essential for them to be embodied in institutions. Hence the Church, which our Lord founded and left behind Him to continue the work He had begun. It was, as we saw, not to be regarded as an end in itself, such as it has come to be, but as an instrument for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

But though Jesus meant that the Church was to be considered as a means rather than an end, He did not mean that a time would ever come when the Kingdom would be established once and for ever; because, as a matter of fact, in the sense of finality it never can be established. On the contrary, if it is to continue living, its life must be renewed daily; and it is for this reason that the Church as a visible and organised institution will always be necessary. It will always be necessary, moreover, because Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation. Spirit and form, soul and body cannot by the essential principle of faith be divided. To bring about harmony between them, between the inner and the outward life, between truth and its visible expression, between religion and civilisation is the task to which Christianity is committed. And as there can be no finality in these things, the Church will always be necessary to effect renewal and adjustment.

From a sociological point of view, the first function of the Church is to maintain in society the acceptance of common standards of thought and morals. This is a necessary condition of any stable social order, because if men are to share a common life they must share a common mind, for there must be a common mind if men are to act together. We have moved so far away from the thought and impulse of the Middle Ages that there are few to-day who recognise the fundamental importance of the common mind to any successful ordering of our social arrangements. Yet it is only necessary to reflect on the general social and political situation to-day to realise that in recognising its importance the Mediaevalists were right while the Modernists in failing to do so are wrong. What is the secret of the apathy of the present day The immediate cause is, doubtless, disillusionment. For centuries society has worshipped at the shrine of mammon, science, and mechanism. Men saw the immediate advantages which followed their surrender to them, while they concealed from themselves their evil side, which was tolerated, nay, justified, as incidental to the cause of progress. They refused to judge this development by any fixed standard of right and wrong, preferring to take their stand on the doctrine of evolution according to which any evil can be justified as a temporary phenomenon inevitable to a time of transition on the assumption that truth and justice will prevail in the end. But it has not worked out as expected. Experience has proved that figs do not grow on thistles, though the culture may be scientific. The pursuit of wealth has not resulted in a more equitable distribution, as Adam Smith prophesied, but has widened the gulf between rich and poor, while it is seen to end in widespread unemployment. It has corrupted business and politics, concentrated power, and built up irresponsible and impersonal tyrannies. Our industrial system has not liberated but enslaved men, while it uses up raw materials at such an alarming rate that the problem of securing new supplies has become a perpetual menace to peace. It is for such reasons that the feeling grows that modern civilisation is breaking up, while science, as detached as ever, invents poison-gas to ensure that the destruction shall be complete.

It is easy to understand why the awakening of the world to these perils should have led to some disillusionment. But the disillusionment would not have led to apathy but for another thing. The man of to-day has no idea how to stop the rot that threatens civilisation; and he has no idea how to stop it because there is no longer in existence a common mind; and because the common mind no longer exists it is impossible to secure any widespread agreement as to what requires to be done. For so long have men enjoyed freedom of thought and speech, for so long has such freedom been exalted as an end in itself, for so long has every false prophet who attacked the very foundations of right thinking and feeling enjoyed immunity, that the average mind to-day is in such a hopeless state of confusion about everything that it is impossible to get agreement about anything that really matters. And so it comes about that in the absence of any positive idea on which to unite, men to-day associate for negative purposes–not to promote what is right, but to denounce what is wrong; for after all, Socialist schemes of reconstruction are little more than organised negations, as the Labour Party’s election manifesto bears witness. The desperate position in which, owing to the disappearance of a common mind, men find themselves to-day makes them attempt to co-operate by sinking their differences, on the assumption that the attainment of power is the first thing necessary to social salvation. But all such attempts avail nothing; for a power that is built up by sinking differences is not a real power but a sham one, that goes to pieces wherever it comes into collision with realities. It is for this reason that the Labour Party tends to lose effective strength in proportion as it grows in numbers. Its recent accession of strength [1] enables its voice to be heard, and will doubtless result in many things being done to mitigate existing evils that would not be done but for the fear of a Labour Government. To this extent the Party is doing useful work. Yet the voice it raises is finally the voice of protest and negation rather than of a prophetic and constructive vision. The members of the Party can unite in their protests against war, on behalf of the unemployed, to prevent the decontrol of rents and in their attacks upon capital. But their points of agreement are superficial, while their disagreements are fundamental, and so it is an open question as to how long they will be able to remain united; for having put their trust in numbers rather than in clear thinking, their faith has become an amorphous conglomeration of conflicting beliefs, and it needs but the shock of reality to expose its weakness.

In these circumstances not only do we see the urgency of re-creating the common mind, but we begin to understand why in former times heresy was suppressed. It was suppressed because when men had a firm grip of fundamental truth they realised that any idea that attacked the unity of the Faith threatened the existence of the common mind, and therefore the stability of society by undermining its capacity to resist evil influences. It was for this reason that in the Middle Ages the heretic was looked upon as a traitor to society, and why for centuries the suppression of heresy was a popular movement. We miss the significance of this suppression if we assume that it was undertaken solely for ecclesiastical reasons. On the contrary, it is to be observed that the suppression of heresy has, with exceptions, been undertaken from secular rather than religious motives, and by civil rather than ecclesiastical authorities, while there is nothing peculiarly Christian or Mediaeval about it. The Greeks condemned Socrates to death because it was held that his teaching undermined respect for the gods, while Plato finally came to the conclusion that to doubt the gods should be a crime punishable by death. The Roman Emperors persecuted the Christians for refusing observance of the gods, while it was the best Emperors who were opposed to the advance of Christianity and the worst ones who were indifferent to its encroachment–Marcus Aurelius himself being no exception to this rule. And what is more interesting, it was not until Christianity became the official religion of the Empire that there was any persecution of heretics in the interests of Christianity. Then the successors of Constantine, continuing in the persuasion of the Pagan Emperors that the first concern of the imperial authority was the protection of religion, persecuted men for not being Christians in the same spirit that their predecessors persecuted men because they were Christians. The same is true of the spirit in which heretics were persecuted by the Church. For it was not until the Papacy became a secular power that it began to persecute heretics, while the most active in their persecutions were the great Popes rather than the average ones, and all the great Popes, as Mr. McCabe points out,[2] were canonists rather than theologians. Such persecutions, however, did not necessarily involve the death penalty, which was reserved for the very exceptional and obstinate cases; for, generally speaking, the opinion prevailed among influential ecclesiastics that while the civil arm might be employed to deal with heretics by prohibiting assemblies and in other ways preventing them from spreading their views, the death penalty was contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. And this attitude continued until the close of the twelfth century, when, owing to the spread of the heresy of the Albigenses (which, owing to the support of the nobility of Southern France, presented the aspect of a powerful political party in addition to that of an heretical sect), the attitude of the Church changed. The Church was terribly afraid of this new spirit, which she considered not only menaced her own existence but the very foundations of society as well, and in the end she shrank from no cruelty that she might be rid of it for ever. The persecution of the Albigenses was the great crime of the Middle Ages, but it is interesting to observe that Innocent III, who instigated the persecution, was a canonist rather than a theologian.

Sufficient has now been said to demonstrate that the suppression of heresy was undertaken for social rather than religious reasons; because men felt that the promotion of ideas which destroyed the unity of the Faith was subversive of the social order. As to whether they were right in supposing that force was the remedy is quite another matter. But this much is certain: that men in the past were right in regarding the preservation of the common mind as a matter of supreme and fundamental importance to the stability of society; while it is equally certain that any solution of our difficulties at the present day involves its recovery; for if order is to be restored to the world, it will have to make its appearance first in the mind of man. And if order is to make its appearance in the mind of man, it will be because the world returns to Christianity. In the break-up of the modern world Christianity is the one thing that is left standing. Its principles are still vaguely accepted by an enormous mass of people to-day, and that is why it must become the new centre of order –a rallying point from which the traditions of society, of a common mind, can be re-created.

But it will be said: If we are to wait until a revival of Christianity is an accomplished fact we are lost, for the problem confronting society develops with such rapidity, and we cannot expect any wholesale conversions of men to Christianity. To which I answer that I am speaking of the ultimate solution, not of immediate measures. But it would clarify our thinking enormously about practical measures if we considered them in the light of Christianity instead of in the light of the materialist philosophy. It is for this reason that the formulation and popularisation of a definitely Christian sociology which would relate the principles and forms of social organisation to the principles of Christianity is a matter of urgency. For in this our immediate task of re-creating the common mind, we cannot rely upon any purely educational propaganda which would aim direct at the creation of common standards of thought and morals; for such a propaganda would lack the definiteness necessary to the crystallisation of thought. It is for this reason that there remains but one path of approach–to approach the spiritual through the material. We must meet the public half-way, bringing light to bear upon the problems in which they are interested, tackling the concrete realities of life and society. By such means the principles of Christianity would be brought into a close and definite relationship with the thought of to-day. And from the union would be born a common mind.


Note: 1 The General Election, November 15, 1922.
Note: 2 Crises in the History of the Papacy, by Joseph McCabe.

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