[Originally published as La Pierre d’achoppement in 1951. English translation was published under the title The Stumbling Block and translated by Gerard Hopkins for the Harvill Press, London (1956). The following excerpt can be found on pages 20-28.]
The infinite distance between the cross and the lives of those who profess and call themselves Christians, is, perhaps, no less marked in the case of many who are consecrated to the service of God, of those, in particular, who are not delivered over to the common crowd like their Master whose secret it was never to divorce contemplation from action. I have witnessed in many human souls the miracle of lives literally battened on and devoured by others, but in whom the sense of the divine presence has never been lost. No one can be a saint merely by yearning after sanctity. I took most of the characteristics of my Woman of the Pharisees from among candidates for sanctity, from women, that is, who in other respects were wholly admirable, the latches of the whose shoes I was not worthy to unloose. I could not help smiling to myself when reading in Isabelle Rivere’s Souveniers the passage dealing with the Benedictines of the rue Monsieur, in which she says that there surely I should have found models of a very different type; because it was precisely in that community that the particular temperament of my “Woman” was forced upon my attention. Much of what I might say in this connexion I will refrain from saying, as, for instance, that a great deal of snobbery exists in the Great Orders. Many professed religious attached to certain Abbeys would be amazed if they were told that their mental attitude is not so very different from that to be observed among the members of the Jockey Club. In Woman of the Pharisees I have merely touched upon the subject of false sanctity which has nothing in common with Tartuffe’s attitude since it is the result of a definite and meritorious search, and, needless to say, has much in it which cannot be condemned. The fact of the matter is that Grace assumes, far less than we think, the outward and visible signs of the Christian Mission. Grace acts in secret, as though protected by an outer rind of seemingly dead cells.
Those who are contemptuous of the Church Militant forget that our spiritual leaders cannot be held responsible for the fact that our Church is the Church of the last days, that she has been forced to organise herself because, if I may put it so, the last days have a way of keeping us waiting. Christianity, which is no less than a complete revolution, a total overturning (the death of the old man, the birth of the new), has had to adapt itself to, compromise with, and play its part in, the sinister farce of a world for which Christ would not pray, has had to agree with it for an exchange of ambassadors, has been forced to maintain Ministers of its own, to provide itself with guards and palaces and to surround itself with all paraphernalia of an outworn pomp which, only too easily, lends itself to facile abuse.
With that particular facility I will have no tuck. The pomp which surrounds the Catholic hierarchy marks the point of contact between the sacred liturgy which is timeless, and the world as we know it in time. That indestructible fabric of texts and symbols is edged with a fringe, a border, which it is hard to distinguish from something belonging to the Godless world in which it must fain be dragged and dabbled. There is, in many Pharisees, a certain form of foolishness which sees in that fact a cause for scandal. Contrariwise, there is a deal of idolatry among those who situate the infinite in the perishable, and, the better to protect it, will recoil from no matter what compromise with the Powers of the world. The refusal to adapt oneself to a world for which Jesus would not pray, is, in my eyes, the sign of a by no means common form of election. It has always seemed to me that a refusal of that nature displays the greatness of Bernanos who, generally speaking, showed it, of classic sanctity. But the more I study him, the more convinced do I become that in Bernanos the “misfit” we have lost one of the last genuine witnesses to the living Christ.
We must learn to face with courage a truth which, though unpleasing to a number of administrators of the Christian revelation, remains, nevertheless, a truth, namely, that should a day come when the events of History may destroy this rich and shining fringe, as the veil of the Temple was rent when the Lord uttered a great cry, no essential injury will have been done to the Church. On the contrary, something deep-seated, till then stifled under an array of superficial pomp, will find a new freedom. That we must tell ourselves, not once but again and again in our moments of doubt and anguish. God knows I would do nothing to hasten the coming of the events I speak of. It is right and proper that the Church in a time of denuding as in a time of glory, should pray to the Father that the cup may pass from her, because the days of persecution inevitably unloose crime upon the world, and raise up more renegades than martyrs. But should such horrors fasten upon her, I regard it as a manifest truth that we have no reason to fear, if not for the welfare of her mission, at least for the preservation of her supernatural destiny, whereas, on the contrary, there is good reason to be frightened of the effect of too great a material prosperity if it has to be bolstered up by the military and financial strength of a great empire. It seems to me that we Christians have, more than other men, the right to view the coming of catastrophe without trembling.
We know only too well whither other ways lead, because our generation finds itself established at a crossroads where all the ideologies of the last hundred years meet. Marxism has been triedin Russia; the consequences of science have been made visible at Hiroshima, and in those laboratories where germ-warfare has been perfected. The promise made to our first parents has been confirmed: “You shall be as gods…” The survivors of the concentration camps are free to meditate at leisure on the religion of progress and of human perfectibility, as are those “displaced persons”, herded into hutments for “screening”, who have left their children’s bodies beneath the rubble of ruined cities (to say nothing of those martyrs of conflicting ideologies who, at this very moment, fill to bursting all the prisons of Europe, and the convict-settlements of all the Russias), Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, who fought one another on the fields of Spain, and elsewhere, in order that man should not be allowed to exploit their fellows, now know that what became of human raw material in the land of that Nietzsche who once proclaimed the death of God.
Heaven knows that we Christians carry a heavy weight of responsibility for these abominations. Let us not be so hypocritical as to shift it to other shoulders. Immunised though I may be against this particular poison, I cannot, I confess, help still grinding my teeth and clenching my fists, when I read certain letters, almost always anonymous, in which the old pietistic refrain of impeachment against “Free Masons and Jews” recurs, salted with complacent self-praise. We must not shirk the duty of annotating Henri Guillemin’s recent Histoire des catholiques français XIXme siècle, no matter how glorious many of its pages may be. I do not deny that between 1830 and 1848 the Lammenais movement (though without its leader) did have a number of successes to its credit. It broke the stranglehold exercised by the respectable and prosperous upon the Church. It re-established a contact, long lost, between the working-class and God. But then arose a new saviour in the guise of the Prince-President, who once more seduced the loyalties of the faithful, and corrupted the best of them (Montalembert). During the period which began with the 2nd December, many were those to whose persuasions French Catholics succumbed – Boulanger, Syveton, the men, first of La Patrie français, then of the Action française and of the Leagues – to say nothing of later developments. True, they did not form the bulk of Doriot’s henchmen. The fact remains, however, that some, if not the best, of our Christian youth were delivered into the hands of those who stood for anti-semitism, for various forms of nationalism, and, more particularly, the one which called itself “integral”.
What idea can Catholics have had of the Press, in the early years of the present century? I was led to ponder that question while reading a biography of the man who founded “la bonne presse” – a group of “good”, religiously-minded journals. To my amazement, he was praised for it without reserve by the author. I was a child at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, and had been brought up by a scrupulous and widowed mother who allowed none but “good” papers in her house. We revelled in Le Pèlerin, in l’Amanach du Pèlerin, in the Jewish stories of a certain Raphael Viaud, and in an endless series of caricatures. One of these has remained firmly fixed in my mind. It represented a father exhibited to his hideous son two pictures, one, the Kiss of Judas, the other, Dreyfus receiving a bag of gold from the hands of a Prussian officer. The legend read. And what about you, Chacob? Whom are you going to sell when you are a man?
How long, I wonder, would it have taken to free my Catholic conscience from the influence of such criminal distortion had I not been fortunate enough, at the age of eighteen, to discover Le Sillon and Marc Sangnier? To him, it is true, I remained faithful for only a few months…but they were enough. I acquired an understanding which I never afterwards lost. Let not those who delight in having broken the back of Christian Democracy rejoice too soon. In spite of errors, in spite of the faults, of those who, at any given moment, were the incarnation of its spirit, it did, historically speaking, continue the effort of that small group which, from 1840 to 1914, kept alive the Gospel Message in France, holding it high, like a banner, above compromise and bargaining – that same small body of the faithful who, during the Dreyfus Affair and the Spanish war, stood firm under a storm of Machiavellian insults – that small body which happily increased its numbers in the time of resistance to the Nazis, determined never to surrender what its adversaries sacrificed without a qualm. Christian democracy has come down to us across the last hundred years, no less weak and feeble than the child Tarciscus who haunted the ages of the Primitive Church, holding the Host clutched to his breast, choosing to die rather than betray the God hidden within his tunic.