Near the beginning of the Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh allows his main protagonist (it will hardly do to call him a ‘hero,’) Guy Crouchback, a moment of epiphany when the news of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is revealed: ”The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Suddenly the world is the way the Crouchback, the scion of an ancient Catholic family, needs it to be. The moral complexities, the ambiguities attendant on everyday life, the shabby little compromises, all these were swept away – there was a righteous cause once more.
Within two years, Crouchback’s hopes were dashed. As he struggled back to Egypt from the wreckage of a doomed attempt to save Crete, the news came of the German invasion of Russia:
“He was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour.”
The “Crusade” moment may have brought peace and clarity to Crouchback, but in the real world from which he was escaping, it led his country close to invasion and defeat. By June 1940 Britain and her Empire stood alone against a Continent divided between German and Russia. Had it not been for the invasion of Russia, it is hard to see how Britain, even with American help (had that come) could have won the war. It was the very event Crouchback so deplored which brought the downfall of the evil of Nazism. But it resulted in the triumph of Communism and its dominance in Eastern Europe for half a century, and its pernicious influence remained a global threat into recent times.
The lesson is clear. What we were brought up to believe, that the good guys win because they are the good guys, and however great the odds against them are, they can be surmounted. That is not true.
We can, if we like, comfort ourselves with the thought that as Christians we can survive in some pure bubble of like-minded Christians, but that is not only a delusion, it is in itself a betrayal of the Great Commission. Jesus did not say “Go thou and take the Benedict option” – we have an imperative duty to share the good news. We live and exist in a world which is not as we would want it to be; but we always have.
One constant feature of human thinking is to posit the existence of a golden age. It happened just before we came to consciousness. So, in one version of this, there was a time of tight, faithful Catholic communities, when the age-old Mass ruled, priests were diligent and pious, and all was well with the world; then came Vatican II and the world began to go to hell in a handcart. Put so baldly it is clearly nonsense, unless one posits (as its proponents do) a Satanic conspiracy to destroy the Church. Had that golden age existed, then its inhabitants would surely have been able to have resisted?
We cannot, as Christians, retreat from the public square and try to keep ourselves pure. We are bound to stay and bear witness amidst the messiness and brokenness which are the inevitable concomitants of what we believe about the human condition. Do we find those things in our own Church? Of course we do, why would we not? The temptation at such times is to think oneself a better Catholic than those we think are less orthodox than us; that too is part of our own brokenness. It is unsure that people are saved by their orthodoxy; it is certain that our own uncharitableness and want of love will have a bad effect on us.
That should not be read as meaning belief does not matter; it does. But it does mean that we need to get things in order. That we disagree with our fellow Catholics is natural. That we express it in terms which imply that we are entitled to consider them as agents of Satan is to elect ourselves to a position that can be held only by God. We cannot judge as He can.
Christians have a duty to engage in the public square. If I were to make a complaint, it would be that we have been too willing to to speak about the moral components of our faith to the world whilst not emphasising its roots in Christ. We believe in loving each other because we are one in Christ, which is the same reason that we engage in good works, in education and in politics. We witness in what we do and say. What, to one, is righteous zeal is, to another, an act of bigoted self-righteousness. It was and always will be so until her comes again in Glory.
Crouchback’s experience is that of the world. There is a clarity in the enemy being clear, but if within our own self there is a satisfaction in that because it makes our live easier, that is not necessarily the road that God intends us to take. God is love and the world is as it is. That expresses the task before us. To believe both parts of that sentence, and the make the world a better place for our work and witness.