E. Belfort Bax April 1911

A Derelict of the Ages

Source: New Age, 20 April 1911, p. 582-584;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The collapse of all forms of dogmatic Christianity during the latter half of the nineteenth century is a matter that will well repay the careful attention of the student of history and sociology. The most interesting example of this collapse, or decay from within, is afforded by the Roman Catholic Church. The great co-equal, sometimes rival, sometimes coadjutor, of the secular powers of the civilised world during the middle ages is now left stranded a hollow wreck, imperfectly concealing in the quasi-integrity of its outward forms the decaying rottenness within. In a recent work, the ex-Jesuit father, Mr. Joseph McCabe, has traced the fact of this decay and shown it to be not confined to one country, or group of countries, but general throughout all the nations comprising what is known as Christendom. He shows it to have followed closely in all cases the advance of education. In the Latin countries, Catholic religion is to all intents and purposes dead in the large towns, while even in the country-side its influence is not a tithe of what it was half a century ago. In France, with the exception of some of the districts in the south-west, Catholicism can hardly be said to exist any longer as a living faith. It would be interesting could we get at the facts as to the number of “true believers,” that is persons for whom the appellation Catholic is more than a mere label. An eminent authority friendly to Catholicism has estimated the number of French Catholics at not more than “three or four millions” all told, out of the nearly forty millions of the French population. This estimate which certainly confirms the impressions of those acquainted with modern French life, even if it be only approximately true, would fully justify the statement that Catholicism as a national faith in France is dead. The same writer, Sabatier, puts the number of French Catholics in the earlier part of the nineteenth century at thirty millions. These figures, which, as Mr. McCabe shows, cannot be much exaggerated on either side, are indeed significant. A similar state of things to the above is to be found in the other Latin countries with the exception that the hold of the Church on the peasantry, who, in many cases, are wholly illiterate, is proportionately stronger.

In the German Empire, in spite of appearances, the strength of the “Centre” representation in the Reichstag is demonstrably due to the inequality of electoral districts. Mr. McCabe points out that while a Social Democratic deputy represents 70,000 votes, a Catholic deputy will only represent 21,000. The Catholic vote is shown to have fallen from 27 to 19 per cent. in 20 years. In Austria the Romano Christian faith, while dead to all intents and purposes in the large centres, retains a steadily diminishing hold in many peasant districts of the Tyrol, Steurmarck, Kärnthem etc. In Hungary the strength of the Church lies exclusively in the illiterate peasantry. As regards the smaller countries of Western and Central Europe, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, they all tell the same tale, to wit – a heavy loss to the Church, in the number even of its nominal adherents, while its real influence is reduced to a fraction of what it was two generations ago or even less. The statistical and other details confirming what is here said will be found set forth at length in Mr. McCabe’s book, The Decay of the Church of Rome. There is a general impression abroad that though the Catholic Church may be losing in the Latin Countries, it is gaining in those occupied by the Anglo-Saxon Race. We commend to those who think thus, the chapters in which Mr. McCabe conclusively demolishes this notion. As regards the English-speaking world, Mr. McCabe’s verdict is, after giving figures in support of his statement, that apart from France, the Roman Catholic Church has lost as heavily in the English-speaking world as it has done in the Latin world. Of the United States the same story might be told as of Great Britain and its Colonies. A million of the faithful is shown to have fallen away in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone. The general loss, as will be seen, is no less here than elsewhere, notwithstanding the fact that of late years the Church has undoubtedly effected some transfers to itself from the dogmatic Protestant sects. The change here from one form of dogmatic Christianity to another, it may be remarked, does not, of course, touch the general decay of Christian theology all along the line.

The remarkable rationalist movement within the Roman Church which has sprung up during the last ten years corresponding to similar movements in the Protestant Churches, and known as Modernism, has rapidly grown to such proportions as to throw the authorities at the Vatican into something like a panic. The only remedy the latter seem to have been able to devise against it, in the abjectness of their terror, is the exaction of a special oath from its clergy pledging themselves not to accept or preach a doctrine before they have investigated it. Such a measure will seem to most impartial persons to partake of the nature of Mrs. Partington’s operation with her broom. Yet the anxiety of the curia “bosses” respecting Modernism is not without good ground. Once the dogmatic integrity of the traditional Church system is gone, and the whole raison d'être of the Church organisation will have gone too.

Up to quite recently, while the Church had lost in everything else, in numbers, influence, character, there was one point in which it had not lost, namely, in money. Its real property and its invested funds have gone on increasing. What this is may be gathered when it is said that on a moderate estimate over thirty years ago, i.e., in 1880, in France alone, the Jesuit property was computed at seven hundred million francs, or nearly three millions sterling, while the total value of the real estate of the monastic orders has been estimated approximately at £80,000,000 (eighty millions sterling). This is quite apart from the privileges enjoyed by the Catholic hierarchy in France by which they are allowed the free use of the churches, i.e., the national property, in itself equivalent to a large state subsidy. Such being its financial condition in one country alone, the prodigious wealth of the Church as a whole may be fairly well gauged. Its possessions in Spain, Italy and Austria, in the catholic parts of the German Empire, are, on the average, certainly not less in proportion, and in some cases much more. Altogether the present condition of the Catholic world points to the probability that the moribund hulk of the once mighty organisation is kept in being solely by the aid of its material assets, and that were it deprived of these, or even were their amount substantially reduced, the Catholic community would in a very short time sink to the level of a small sect.

Not the least striking feature of Mr. McCabe’s exposure of the decay of the Roman Church is his proof of the fact that the enormous majority of its nominal votaries are unable to read or write. Of the Vatican’s 190,000,000 followers more than 120,000,000 are illiterate. The Latins and Slavs we are told alone furnish more than 100,000,000 of these illiterate followers. This means, says Mr. McCabe, “that the majority of the Roman Catholics in the world to-day, consist of American Indians, half castes, negroes, and mulattoes; Italians, Spanish, Russian, and Slavonic peasants of the most backward character; and Indian, Chinese, and African natives.”

In the following section I deal with the attempts made by the Catholic interest to bluff the real situation as regards the strength and influence of Catholicism and to make the world believe that the derelict carcase still shows signs of life, and indeed of a reviving life, in endeavouring to make the defence of Catholicism an up-to-date pose by attracting to it, here and there, a smart journalist, and as many dabblers in literature of the decadent and intellectual dude type as can be roped in.


The question we have to consider now is the inner meaning of the rapid decay of Catholicism in its social, political, and personal influence. The first and most obvious explanation is that Catholicism shares in the common fate which has overtaken all traditional dogmatic faiths resting on authority – the “institutional religions” of the world, as they are sometimes termed. The latter respond to and are the products of a phase of human culture which civilised mankind in modern times is fast outgrowing where it has not already outgrown it. The early and classical expression of decaying belief is the familiar antithesis between the dévot and the honnête homme. The advance of human knowledge and the condition of mind engendered by modern thought generally, has, within the last half century at least, caused the attitude of the honnête homme to become the typical and normal one for civilised mankind in general. Yet, in spite of this, we see the forms of dogmatic Christianity still outwardly subsisting, at the worst, in a state of decayed grandeur, and still nominally exercising some influence. How is this? The answer is, that the decay in the vitality of these dogmatic creeds, the progress of the outgrowing of them and of the fundamental conception of the world on which they are based, is modified in its manifestations by two important factors, to wit, (1) the conservatism of the human mind as regards forms, even after all the vital meaning has left them; and, (2) the instinctive conviction of the dominant classes that their interests, i.e., the existing economic and political structure of society, is bound up with their maintenance, in at least apparent outward integrity.

The first of these influences is a sociologic phenomenon familiar to students of folk lore and kindred branches of enquiry. All interested in these subjects know how prehistoric modes of thought have survived in peasant communities up to modern time. Or to take an historical instance interesting in point of view of our present subject. St. Benedict in the sixth century, nearly three and a half centuries after the establishment of Christianity as the imperial religion by Constantine, found at Monte Cassino, not seventy miles from Rome itself, the old rites, ceremonies, and beliefs of Paganism in full force without a trace of Christian influence being observable. In the secluded valleys of Thessaly it is said that the rites of the local Zeus and other cults dating from classic times and before, continued to be celebrated uninterruptedly in their old forms far into the early middle ages. Even to-day Mr. Farnell in his Cults of the Greek States is able to quote an instance of peasant practices in the same districts, clearly deriving. with but little modification, from the ancient cult of Dionysos. Taking this tendency of the human mind into consideration the wonder is not the extent to which Christian observances continue in vogue but rather the extent to which they and the beliefs of which they are the expression have lapsed, and that within a comparatively short period.

As regards the second of the causes mentioned as tending to militate against the rapid extinction of theological creeds and their cults, namely, their being so intimately bound up with the structure and traditions of existing society, and hence with the interests of the economically and politically privileged classes of that society, it is unnecessary to do much more than call attention to the fact, obvious as it is. The fact, however, renders it improbable that the class-interests in question will allow dogmatic theology and its cultural expressions to die a natural death so long as modern capitalist society continues to exist, and hence so long in all probability will institutional religion survive, at least in outward form. It will be readily understood from this why the policy of the Catholic Church is to pander to modern capitalism even in its worst forms. It may be said justly that the State churches of dogmatic Protestantism are no better in this respect, being mere adjuncts of the economical and political powers that be. But it cannot be denied that the Catholic Church in its efforts to ingratiate itself with these same powers often does not scruple to go one better than its rivals. The fact is, moreover, especially noticeable in the case of Roman Ecclesiasticism seeing that it has always claimed an independence over and against the secular power and secular interests, whereas the Protestant Churches, in so far as they are State churches, have never professed to be anything else than spiritual satraps of the governing classes. Add to this that Roman Catholicism while quite prepared to be up-to-date in making its peace with all forms of modern capitalist unrighteousness, still retains a mediaeval penchant for persecution and cruelty.

It thus embodies in its present-day form oftentimes the worst characteristics of two different periods of history. While on the one hand it will back up colonial expansion and aggressive wars on backward races, market-hunting and capitalist exploitation generally, on the other it will champion barbarous forms of punishment. There is no more zealous advocate of the death penalty in criminal law than the Roman Church. It is generally supposed by the modern man that the apparent bloodlust of the Catholic Church at the period of the Reformation (say) was largely attributable to the general custom and spirit of the period concerned, though a glance into the writings of eminent Catholic theologians hardly confirms this view. What however opened the eyes of the world at large to the hideous possibilities inherent even in modern Catholic practice was the atrocious judicial murder of Francesco Ferrer at Barcelona, in the autumn of 1909. The latter event afforded striking evidence of the fact that the proceedings of the Inquisition, etc., in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are not wholly to be attributed to the general character of the period in question, but that, to put it moderately, a considerable share of the iniquities perpetrated is deducible from the intrinsic character of Catholic Christianity itself. The Catholic Church can be modern enough in currying favour with wealth and privilege, by casting its aegis over current capitalism and its methods, but it cannot be modern it seems in adopting latter-day principles of toleration and decent humanity. This is one small point the apologist of Catholicism might do well to ponder.

The question now arises why – given the enormous pull that traditional belief and custom have; given the support, tacit or avowed, of powerful interests in modern society, and last but not least, the enormous wealth at its disposal – the Catholic Church has not made a better fight for its numerical standing and its influence than it has. Dead in the Latin nations amongst the entire educated sections of the population, and with a visibly waning influence even among the peasantry in most districts; even in Anglo-Saxon countries fully sharing in the general decline of dogmatic Christianity, mainly drawing recruits where such exist from the other sects and in no way gaining on the advance of rationalist thought; in similar case, as regards the vast Germanic populations of central Europe, with everything else in its favour and only education and enlightened thought against it, one would certainly have imagined that such a great organisation would have made a better show than it has. Certainly the facts suggest either a want of ability or a gross mismanagement on the part of the heads of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

And what has the Church got to show on the other side? How then, it may be asked, has it succeeded in imbuing many not unintelligent persons in this country, and elsewhere, with the notion that it is making progress? The answer is, bluff! We hear sometimes talk of the modern Catholic revival. Where is this revival to be sought? The real truth is this: in addition to the old logic-chopping Jesuit whose profound cleverness we are always hearing puffed, there does exist a small literary sect, mostly of literary decadents, in London, Paris, and possibly elsewhere who are just now engaged in “running” Catholicism as a “going concern.” In this country these are mostly young men of the “Yah, early Victorian!” type. They need not necessarily be avowedly Catholics themselves but they make it their business to adopt the Catholic pose, bowing respectfully towards the Church as an organisation, and defending its dogma and practice in an indirect cryptic manner against the assaults of rationalism, which are waived aside in a lofty manner. Such also talk mysteriously and with awe of the mighty progress and universal influence of the Holy Catholic Church. The one thing these gentlemen dislike is plain speech. Straightforward English is for them too utterly “early Victorian.” [They call everything they don’t like “early Victorian."]

He does not say so outright, but this intellectual dude evidently wishes to convey the impression that the great truths established in the fifties and sixties of the last century and that have become incorporated as matters of course in the intellectual outlook of the present age, are, somehow or other, no longer true. He is the same type, mutatis mutandis, that in the early eighties we knew as the knight of the sunflower and the lily, and as personified in Savoy opera in the character of Bunthorne. The successors of this type are machining the imaginary Catholic “boom” at the present time. The game of bluff can rarely be kept up for very long, and this Catholic pose we may safely assume will pass into some other before many years are over.

If it should be asked, is Protestantism in any better case than Catholicism? the answer must be emphatically in the negative. Indeed it is the collapse of the Protestant sects, or at least of their dogmatic raison d'être, which has given a superficially plausible colour to the notion of the increasing influence of Catholicism, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. Protestant Christian dogma as such has ceased to count. The sects still may remain but under the auspices of “New Theologies,” with their character completely changed. The old theology which gave them meaning is, in any case, explained away with more or less ingenuity where not openly repudiated. To speak in “ early Victorian” plain language, the belief in the traditional religious systems is dead.