ROADS TO ROME: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day by John Beaumont, South Bend, IN, 2010, pp 494 + xiv. Price: $55. Available from St. Augustine Press, www.staugustine.net
John Beaumont has put together the largest collection of ‘notable’ British and Irish converts ever published. These converts are ‘notable’ because they had ‘a public element in their lives’ or ‘set out reasons, usually in print’, for their conversion. Roads to Rome has nearly a thousand entries, many of them containing the names of family members who also became Catholic. A labour of love, this book comes with an introduction by Joseph Pearce and a foreword by Marcus Grodi.
Each entry contains (if available) the date of birth, conversion, and death, as well as a summary of the person’s life. There are often excerpts, too, from writings by, or about the person, reflecting on the motives for conversion. The entries range in size from a paragraph all the way to seven pages in the case of Blessed John Henry Newman. Listed alphabetically, these entries make for surprising juxtapositions: Blessed Hugh Green, martyred by Puritans in 1642, stands cheek by jowl with novelist Graham Greene, who called himself a ‘Catholic-agnostic’, though he kept Padre Pio’s picture in his wallet till the end. Included here are kings, courtiers, clergymen, warriors, philosophers, historians, novelists, artists, architects, barristers, bankers, actors, physicians – the gamut of notable society.
One of the aims of Roads to Rome is to bring the reader’s attention to some excellent sources of apologetics. Indeed a bibliography of 20th-century apologetics might be constructed from the works cited here. This feature of Roads to Rome will be the focus of my review.
In recent decades, Catholics in name only have flaunted their opposition to the Church’s moral teachings, complaining that the Vatican will not change with the times. In Roads to Rome, we discover many eminent converts flocking to the Church precisely because she is an authoritative, unswerving guide on morality. A century apart, Alice Meynell said that she needed a ‘guide in morals’, and Alice Thomas Ellis, that one could be ‘very free’ and ‘very happy’ within the ‘structure’ of the Church. Stanley Arthur Morison knew he needed a ‘framework’, without which he feared he could become ‘a very wicked man indeed’. The homosexual Oscar Wilde lamented that much of his ‘moral obliquity’ was the result of his father’s preventing him, early on, from becoming a Catholic. He believed the ‘fragrance’ of the Church’s moral teachings would have cured him of his ‘degeneracies’.
Thomas Allies finally understood that Protestant morality consisted in ‘natural virtues’, a ‘worldly system of rewards’ unsuitable for the work of the Crucified. Gerard Manley Hopkins found himself inspired by the Church’s ‘marvelous ideal of holiness’, and Arnold Lunn, by her unrelenting thunder against ‘sin and error’. Malcolm Muggeridge was moved by the very teaching that enrages so many pretended Catholics today – the Church’s ‘firm stand against contraception and abortion’. In defense of Humanae Vitae, he wrote that ‘in the history books when our squalid moral decline is recounted, with the final breakdown in law and order that must follow’, the Pope’s ‘courageous and just’ stand will be given the ‘respect and admiration it deserves’. G.E.M. Anscombe declared that Pope Paul VI had confirmed ‘the only doctrine which has ever appeared as the teaching of the Church on these things and in doing so incurred the execration of the world’. More recently, Ann Widdecombe has observed that while a Church must accommodate sinners, ‘what you don’t do is accommodate sin’. These are a few of the paeans to the beauty of Catholic morality to be found in Roads to Rome.
We hear of Catholics today leaping out of the Ark into the storm-tossed Deluge because of sins committed by a tiny percentage of priests. It’s true that one of the four marks of the Church is that she is ‘holy’, but as we learn in Roads to Rome, scandals do not impinge on the Church’s holiness. Mgr Walter Croke Robinson observes that ‘Bad Popes and bad priests never troubled me for a moment. The office and the man are so obviously distinct that the mind must be addled that does not see it at a glance’. In addition, Meriol Trevor says that Catholics do not see ‘any bad policies of Popes, corrupt practices of clerics, disciplinary injustices or devotional aberrations as invalidating the apostolic authority of the faith, or as interrupting the communication of divine life through the sacraments’. In short, the personnel (including Judas among the Twelve) are to be distinguished from the Bride of Christ. As Caryll Houselander poignantly remarks, the ‘abuses’ arising in the Church are ‘necessary, because they are the Passion. You see, the Church is Christ, and therefore Christ’s Passion must go on in the Church. Tragic, even frightening though it is, we know Christ better with the kiss of Judas on His face’.
Mgr Ronald Knox explains that the Church makes us holy, not the other way round. Our Lord knew His Church would contain ‘rogues and honest men mixed’, not all of them ‘bound for heaven’. Evelyn Waugh sees the Church as always having been at war with these ‘traitors from within’, and Stratford Caldecott reminds us that the Church remains the ‘sinless Bride of Christ’ because ‘the all too evident sins of her members’ are continuously washed by His ‘blood’. Michael Coren finds both ‘historical failings’ and ‘current lapses’ irrelevant because what is important is ‘the truth of a belief, not the failure or success of alleged followers to live up to that truth’. That is to say, the sins of the Church’s personnel are one thing, the unbending truth of her doctrines quite another.
Universal living authority
In the Creed, two of the four marks of the true Church are ‘apostolic’ and ‘catholic’, i.e. universal. A number of eminent people who converted in the 1990s – including George Gardiner, John Gummer, Peter Geldard, and Sheridan Gilley – saw the Church of England’s ordination of women as a break from the ‘apostolic Church’. Others like William Oddie thought women’s ordination was saying: ‘we take to ourselves the power, apart from the universal church, to do something the rest of the universal Church will not do’.
In our time the European Union has refused to acknowledge the unique role of the Church in Europe’s history. In Roads to Rome, Msgr Walter Robinson’s remarks are a counterpoint to that tragic denial, for he hails the Church as a ‘huge objective fact’ in Europe’s history for almost two millennia, during which time she has taught Europeans with a ‘living voice’ and ruled them with ‘incomparable discipline’. Denys Blakelock notes that for their failure today to heed that living, authoritative voice, Europeans are sinking ‘into the abyss of disbelief and cynicism’. Kenneth Clark credits the Virgin Mary with teaching ‘a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion’, but adds that without Christianity, Europeans are now unlearning these virtues.
Robert Hugh Benson speaks of the ‘absolute need of a living authority’, since written records suffice only for a ‘dead religion’. Ernest Messenger thinks it ‘very improbable’ that Jesus Christ left only a book which ‘each man’ was to ‘read and interpret’ for himself. For one thing, few could read before the 19th century, and for another, few could afford a Bible before printing expanded in the 16th century. The theory is proven false by its results: a long series of divisions and sub-divisions in Protestantism. As Cyprian Blamires says, ‘God was incarnate as a man, not a book’. Lord Leonard Cheshire declares that the Bible was ‘never meant to be the sole and self-sufficient guide to God’s revelation’, for our Lord left a Church to be ‘nothing less than the direct continuation of His work on earth’ in teaching with ‘divinely-protected inerrancy’. Only one Church can ‘reasonably and plausibly pretend to speak with authority’, the one that traces ‘her ascent back to the Apostles’. As Ian Ker notes, for Catholics the Bible has always been the Church’s ‘possession’.
For Catholics in name only, the word dogma is a red flag to a bull, yet many learned converts in Roads to Rome embraced Catholicism precisely for its dogmas. Philosopher Peter Thomas Geach gives eloquent expression to our need for them: ‘the holding of some dogmas as true is essential to any religion’s being worth serious consideration: dogma is essential to religion as a shell to an egg or a skeleton to a human body, without it we have only a shapeless jelly. Undogmatic Christianity is a plain absurdity’. Likewise Dom Bede Camm came into the Church because it was ‘so firm, so invincible, so serene, so unfaltering in her teaching’, and Alan Pryce-Jones because it had a ‘strong and disciplined structure of belief, unaffected in its essentials by time or circumstances: a Rock of Ages’.
In the Creed, a mark of the true Church is that she is ‘One’. Numbers of converts have crossed the Tiber because of the unity found in the Pope. Gerard Manley Hopkins was drawn to the Church by reading Gospel passages like ‘Thou art Peter’ and by reflecting on ‘the position of St. Peter among the Apostles’. Bishop Christopher Butler found that the evidence for the primacy of Peter among the Apostles was ‘extensive and massive’ and that it pointed to the See of Rome as having ‘preserved the priceless gift of a unity’. Denys Blakelock realized that the Pope was the ‘lynchpin, as it were, by which the giant wheel of that great spiritual dynamo could revolve with perfect safety to the end of time’. In like manner, Mgr Graham Leonard rejoiced that the Pope gave the Church ‘a central authority’ so that obedience might be given ‘not to a book nor to the resolutions of a committee nor to formularies nor to a trust deed but to a person who exercises his ministry as ... Servant of the Servants of God’.
Miracles and miraculous saints
Many other reasons for converting may be found in Roads to Rome. Edith Sitwell was drawn in by ‘the serenity in the faces of the peasant women praying in the churches in Italy’, and Maude Gonne (who had dabbled in the occult) by the need for the Church’s ‘protection and guidance’. A ‘major factor’ in Charles Kegan Paul’s conversion was a miracle that took place in Lourdes, in Philip Trower’s, the fact that miracles ‘continued in the Church right down to the present’, and in Christopher Dawson’s, that Catholic saints and mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross made ‘even the greatest of non-Catholic religious writers seem pale and unreal’.
The sight of the early Church rising in the midst of Roman persecution has long filled converts with awe. Christopher Hollis, for one, asked himself what could account for it: ‘The believer’s explanation is that the Church triumphed through the direct, supernatural action of God. For the life of me I cannot see any other explanation which at all adequately accounts for that triumph’. Others like George Mackay Brown marvelled at the Church’s continuance through the centuries: ‘That such an institution as the Church of Rome – with all its human faults – had lasted for nearly 2,000 years, while parties and factions and kingdoms had had their day and withered, seemed to me to be utterly wonderful. Some mysterious power seemed to be preserving it against the assaults and erosions of time’. Blessed John Henry Newman cut the Gordian knot when he declared plainly the Catholic religion was ‘the coming in of the unseen world into this’.
Roads to Rome is not just an important reference book that belongs in every college library, it is also a source-book and treasure trove of Catholic apologetics.
This review first appeared in New Oxford Review.
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