About Fables and the Catholic Church

by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D

Recently, in the city office of a friend, I was approached by a well-spoken, sober looking young man. I never did get to find out what he did for a living, but from his suit and general appearance I took him to be some kind of professional person earning quite a reasonable salary.

He asked me if I would mind answering a few questions about Catholicism. I said, "with pleasure', and this otherwise normal young Australian proceeded to reel off incredible fables about the Church and Catholics gleaned from religious gossip-mongers, odd newspaper articles, radio talk-back shows and "popular' TV programmes — with the odd spicy bit drawn from some long out-of-print book, and a recent glossy anti-Catholic work by noted TV "evangelist' Jimmy Swaggert entitled "Catholicism and Christianity'. At the end of his diatribe I felt sick in the stomach — not because what he said was news to me, or because there was no answer to it, but because it had to be answered at all, and because he believed it all so fervently.

Over 130 years ago. Cardinal Newman found himself in just such a situation. His response was to tell the questioner a fable of his own which Annals readers may find helpful should they find themselves similarly placed.

A Lion was once invited to be the guest of a Man. The lion was well-received, and had the run of the magnificent palace in which there were a vast number of ornaments and antiques to admire. Among the sculpture and paintings which it admired, the lion noticed that the subject most frequently occurring was the lion itself. His host drew the lion's attention to the number of lions featured in the artistic representations, but tactfully was silent about something that the lion couldn't help noticing: the lion was always being beaten by the human beings.

There was Samson tearing a lion to pieces, David taking a lion by the throat and choking it; there were lion hunts, lions with knives in their hearts, or others writhing in death agonies: lions in nets, lions drawing chariots for Roman emperors, Hercules clad in a lion's skin. Even the feet of the alabaster tables ended in lions' paws; lions' mouths held the door handles; lions' faces grinned at each other across the mantle piece.

The lion's host asked the lion what he thought of the splendours of the palace; and the lion in reply praised the owner's wealth, but added: "Lions would have fared better if lions had been the artists!'

Catholics, when confronted with "facts' allegedly drawn from "history' can easily understand how the lion felt.

The existence and popularity of "official' histories produced under the auspices of the Russian and Chinese Communists, the Nazis, any autocratic or totalitarian regime or even of the U.S. State Department, need surprise no-one. They have their antecedents in "official' histories of England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, etc, dealing with the Mediaeval and Reformation periods, produced in England and on the Continent. In Hunt's History of the Fourth Estate, for instance, we read of post-reformation England where "The Lord Chancellor and the fudges were to be censors of all legal works. The Secretary of State was to say what histories and what political writings were to appear. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London were made censors of philosophy, physics and religion . . .".

All such works "approved' by officialdom, whether in the time of Elizabeth I, Josef Stalin or Mrs Thatcher need careful reading if the truth is to be sifted through the lies; if the underlying bias is to be offset; if the truth is to be discovered beneath the layer upon layer of "official' history.

There are two sides to every argument. Both sides must be properly presented, and thoroughly heard if truth and justice are to prevail. The maxim 'audiatur altera pars,' (let the other side be heard) has been a principle of Catholic Canon Law since the beginnings of the Church. It has not been much in evidence in histories of religion, human thought or civilization, since the Reformation drove a wedge between the Catholics and 'the others': a wedge driven deeper by the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Liberalism, 19th century Nationalism, the rise of Fascism in its Nazi and Communistic forms, and the mass media.

There is a Catholic side that is rarely heard; and there is the "other' side: be it Protestant, Orthodox, Humanistic, Atheistic, Communistic or Capitalistic. Of the two sides, both cannot be right at the same time under the same conditions: one must be right and the other wrong.

Looking at but a few of the current anti-Catholic cliches, either it is true that there was a Pope Joan, or it is not; either it is true that more wars have been fought in the name of religion, or it is not; either it is true that (centuries before any crusades) Muslims invaded France in 738, sacked St Peter's and St Paul's (both outside the Aurelian walls) in 846, or it is not; either it is true that the Patriarch of Constantinople has a right to be independent of the Pope of Rome, or it is not; either it is true that Christ rose from the dead, or it is not; either it is true that Purgatory exists, or it is not; either it is true that Pope Pius XII did nothing to prevent the Second World War, or to help the Jews and other victims of Nazi racist policies or it is not; either it is true that Christ founded his Church on Peter the Rock, or it is not; either it is true that the Catholic Church has remained faithful to its divine mission, or it is not.

Truth is always one — it cannot be two contradictory things. Catholics believe that truth is to be found within Catholicism. Those who disagree have a right, in fact an obligation, to enquire as to their reasons for disagreeing. A fine case can be made for the blackest villain in the dock to be an injured, innocent party, a victim, even a hero, if one were to believe the defence prepared by his counsel. But where does the truth lie? Any lie will seem plausible if one reads only all that can be said in its favour, and excludes all that can be said against it.

Catholics are aware that no conclusion can be trusted which, to use Newman's words, "has not been examined by enemy as well as friend; no traditions can claim our allegiance which shrink from criticism, and dare not look a rival in the face.'

It is precisely at this point that the Catholics, like the lion in the fable, should demand that their detractors be as willing to examine the truthfulness of their own positions, as they are to believe badly of their Catholic fellow-citizens. The anti-Catholic position is daily trumpeted from the news-stands and TV antennae. The weak point in their detractors' position is precisely their unwillingness to submit themselves to rigorous and impartial judgement.

How can you tell a phoney painting except by comparing it with the genuine article? How can you detect false weights and measures, except by comparison with the 100% correct standards proven to be I preserved with utmost care? How can you detect false history, except by going back to primary-sources, and keeping a determinedly open mind? How can you tell if the plastic or cloth flowers are artificial, if you have never seen, touched or smelt real living flowers in your garden?

The living and true Church founded by Christ is somewhere in this world. If you want to find her, look for the one Church maligned by all, feared, gagged, abused, insulted, criticised, blackened, made look impotent, ridiculous, legislated out of existence, persecuted, made light of, laughed out of court. For imitations can continue to pass themselves off as genuine, only if the real thing is so bruised as to be almost unrecognizable. Catholics who wonder why Fundamentalists and others seem never willing to play fair, should remember that her enemies dare not be fair. Otherwise they would lose the game.


From "Annals Australia" November/December 1988