In his delightful book Enthusiasm, Ronald Knox remarks on the Jansenist belief that the Church is destined to decline continuously from her pristine excellence until the end of the world. He says that this opinion would be as hard to justify from history as it is from theology. Newman in Loss and Gain puts the same Jansenist view in the mouth (if I remember correctly) of Campbell, the Scotch Protestant, but without giving any indication of whether he himself endorses or opposes it.

Chesterton, I think in his book on Chaucer, recounts how he was once asked by a very intelligent agnostic whether he thought that the human race improved as time went on, or degenerated, or stayed about the same, and that the questioner seemed to think that he had covered all the possibilities. In reply he asked the other chap whether he thought that Ebeneezer Brown of 22, The Beeches, Tooting Bec, improved, degenerated or stayed about the same between the ages of 30 and 40 (I quote from memory, and invent the names.) Chesterton says that it then seemed to dawn on his interlocutor that the answer rather depended on Mr Brown and how he chose to behave. In other words, for Chesterton, because man has free will there is no necessity for the human race to go in any direction in particular. This is certainly an invigorating way to answer our question, but I’m not sure the conclusion follows. There is such a thing as having moral certainty about future events that will depend on free will; St Thomas says somewhere that in a town full of irascible people, you can be sure an argument will break out at some point, even though you can’t tell in advance when or between whom. In the same way, one could hold that the human race will go in a certain direction even though each man is free to go where he wants.

Maritain throughout his writing has a theory that both good and evil increase in the human race as time goes by, like the wheat and the cockle growing side-by-side. I suppose this means that the just will on average be more just, and the unjust on average more unjust from one century to the next. I don’t think he really tries to prove this, though he does make the point that if persecutions intensify, those who resist them will need to have a correspondingly greater holiness. On the other hand, even if his theory were true, it could still be the case that an increasingly large number of people became unjust in every age. Also, since the cockle on his account can be within the Church as well as outside, it wouldn’t help to answer the question about how the Church on earth was destined to fare.

Tolkien, in a private letter from 1956, wrote: “I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat.” I like those quotation marks around ‘history’. Presumably they signify that the subject as usually studied is defective, as abstracting from the supernatural truths that alone allow us to understand it. But why ‘a long defeat’ rather than a series of victories and defeats? Presumably he was thinking of history as tending toward the reign of the antichrist, which he must have considered as the final period of history, ended only by the eucatastrophe of the second coming.

St Thomas, speaking about how the articles of faith have grown over the years from Abraham onwards, says this:

The final consummation of grace came about through Christ, and so His time is called ‘the fullness of time’. Consequently, those who were closer to Christ, whether before, like John the Baptist, or after, like the apostles, knew the mysteries of faith more fully. We see the same thing in regard to the condition of a man, who has {bodily} perfection in youth, and a man is the more perfect in proportion as he is close to youth, whether before or after (2a 2ae 1, 7 ad 4).

He is not speaking here about an increase in the articulation of the mysteries of faith, I think, since then it would not be true that knowledge declines after the apostles. After all, we have their writings, and we have the commentaries on them made by the Fathers and doctors which make explicit many things contained only implicitly in Scripture. He must therefore be speaking of the depth of understanding, or intensity of faith. But this comes about, as he explains elsewhere (2a 2ae 6, 1) through the grace given to intellect and will; by charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But this apparently implies that sanctifying grace is poured out more abundantly insofar as people are closer in time to the Incarnation and Pentecost. If the mysteries of faith are more keenly understood the closer people are to the time of Christ, this must be because charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit – which are proportioned to one’s degree of sanctifying grace – are given more abundantly, the closer one is to that time. This would be fitting, as emphasising the central place of the Incarnation within history. It would also fit in with some remarks of St Gregory the Great which I have quoted elsewhere in these chronicles:

By the awful course of the secret dispensation, before this Leviathan appears in that accursed man {antichrist} whom he assumes, signs of power are withdrawn from holy Church. For prophecy is hidden, the grace of healings is taken away, the power of longer abstinence is weakened, the words of doctrine are silent, the prodigies of miracles are removed

St Bede, like St Jerome, thought that the overthrow of antichrist would come before the end of the world. But he still thinks that there will be very little true faith left at the end of the world. Commenting on Luke 18:8 (“When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on earth?”), Bede writes:

When the almighty Creator shall appear in the form of the Son of man, so scarce will the elect be that not so much the cries of the faithful as the torpor of the others will hasten the world’s fall.

Were the Janensists, then, correct? Is the Church a kingdom gradually sliding into decay, which will be saved from extinction only by the coming of the Lord? Things are more complicated. For one thing, not only has the Church on earth expanded in numbers from about 120 on Pentecost Sunday to its present membership, but also there have been periods since Pentecost when the proportion of people on earth in a state of grace was surely increasing; for example, from AD 33 to AD 133. This is certainly a victory for the city of God over the city of man. The Church has also progressed in the ever more perfect elaboration of sacred doctrine and the possession of more splendid liturgical rites (whether these are used is another question). Also she has progressed in having an ever greater treasury of merit and satisfaction on which to draw, and more examples of holiness, through the lives of the saints who have passed to their reward. Moreover, as Vatican I taught, her continued existence is in itself a sign of her divine mission, and this sign in the nature of things becomes more striking with the passage of time. All these things are triumphs over the kingdom of darkness.

Nevertheless, it could still be true, as seems to be implied by the words of St Thomas, that the average level of grace of those in the Church is lower in every generation; it could also be true that the percentage of those in the Church living fervent lives is in continual decline. Yet even this could be a tendency rather than an iron law. St Thomas uses the analogy of the human body, which is more perfect the closer it is to youth. Yet while this is true others things being equal, it may be that a particular man exercises more or has a better diet, and so is stronger or has more stamina, at some time earlier or later than at his natural peak of health. So it could be that the exercise demanded by the stress of particular events, for example, universal persecution, will temporarily raise the average level of holiness in the mystical body; or it could be that the intake of many new members to whom God wishes to attach a special blessing (for example the Jews, for the sake of their fathers) will have the same effect. But all the same the underlying trend would be downwards. Yet any given Christian may still achieve heroic sanctity, if he wants. And the proportion of people on earth in a state of grace can increase even if the average level of their sanctity decreases; though other things being equal, for example if there are no new pagan lands to evangelise, this seems less likely than likely.

A happy and fervent new year to all the saints at Laodicea.

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