I consider your letter to be addressed to me personally, as if you said, "I am perplexed and even curious to understand how a man like you, who have had time and opportunities for observation and thought, should be able to put up with a one-sided view of the Church of Rome—nay, with an abstract view and a paper representation of it, a mere conclusion, congruous or compulsory, from premises dependent on certain first principles, such as 'there must be a visible Church,' instead of going into the world of facts, and seeing and judging of the Roman Church by what it is seen to have been in history."
My reply to your objections, then, shall take the shape of accounting for my own insensibility to them as objections. But anyhow, as I can only answer you in my own way and from my own standpoint, the substance of what I shall say would be the same, whether I argued with you directly or explained to you the arguments which convince me.
First, then, I grant that I do assume certain first principles as the starting points from which my convictions proceed, and I don't see who can arrive at any conviction without making assumptions. I assume that there is a truth in religion, and that it is attainable by us: that there is a God, to whom we can approve ourselves and to whom we are responsible. On the other hand, I find, in matter of fact and by experience, that there are great difficulties in admitting this first principle; but still, they are not such as to succeed in thrusting it out from its supremacy in my mind. The most prominent difficulty of Theism is the existence of evil: I can't overcome it; I am obliged to leave it alone, with the confession that it is too much for me, and with an appeal to the argumentum ab ignorantiâ, or, in other words, with the evasion or excuse, not very satisfactory, that we have not the means here of answering an objection, which nevertheless, if we knew more, we should doubtless have the means of answering: that we can at least make hypotheses to help the difficulty, and, though all those which we can make be wrong, still they open a possibility and prospect of other hypotheses as yet unknown, one of which may be the true explanation.
When I come to Christianity I find this grand difficulty untouched, yet fully recognised. This coincidence is to me an argument in favour of Christianity, if Theism be true, as falling under the argument from analogy. And, though Theism were not yet proved true, still, from the fact of the coincidence, an argument in some sort is to be drawn in favour of both systems, that is, supposing the coincidence is independent of themselves—I mean, if Theists and. Christians have not borrowed their recognition and non-explanation of the fact of evil from each other.
Our Lord's death to destroy evil is as tremendous and appalling a confession of the (its?) existence and of its power as can be conceived.
From this central doctrine of the Gospel, the Atonement, may be drawn two contrary conclusions. The first is that from the moment of our Lord's death upon the cross all evil would be annihilated; or secondly, that since He did not in His own Person destroy it instantaneously, no wonder if He should take time in destroying it in the world or in His Church. The former of those conclusions is perhaps the more natural; but the interval of gloom and sadness which overwhelmed His followers on His death, and still more their history, as contained in the Acts of the Apostles, is sufficient to show that it is not the right conclusion.
I confess, then, that it was natural, very reasonable, to expect that an annihilation of sin and a millennium period would commence with our Lord's Sacrifice; but, unless we unravel our convictions and run back to belief in nothing, I must give this thought up, and must admit, on the contrary, the pregnant conclusion that evil will pass away from this world and from the Church very slowly—nay (if we are to imagine that the moral system advances after the analogy of the advance in the physical system of the universe), so slowly that one or two generations or centuries afford no available measure for calculating the rate of advance. I own I should have fancied, a priori, that the lamb and the lion would lie down together from the date of the Crucifixion; that at least that Elect Society which our Lord left behind Him would show forth in its extension as a kingdom of righteousness from the first, simple and absolute holiness extending with its extension, whereas, in fact, the history of the Church contains in it the history of great crimes.
I allow, then (and for argument's sake I allow more than facts warrant), the existence of that flood of evil which shocks you in the visible Church; but for me, if it touched my faith mortally in the divinity of Catholicism, it would, by parity of reason, touch my faith in the Being of a Personal God and Moral Governor. The great question to me is not what evil is left in the Church, but what good has energised in it and been practically exercised in it, and has left its mark there for all posterity. The Church has its sufficient work if it effects positive good, even though it does not destroy evil except so far forth as it supplants it for good.
Of its greatest and best achievements it cannot, from the nature of the case, leave memorials, that "hidden man of the heart" of which I spoke in that former letter to which you refer. It is not necessarily seen in school teachers or in every specimen of a secular priest, even though, did you know them, you might find that your first impressions had been unjust to them. Nay, I have always laid great stress on St. Paul's words, "I endure all for the elects' sake"; they lead me to reflect that, even though there were no high religious fruits of the Church's special sacraments generally, ordinarily and primâ facie visible to the world, that would not necessarily be a refutation of its claim to come from God. The Church would indeed, if it had no visible tokens at all, be a secret society; but, since it is a light set on a hill, I grant it must have visible tokens that it is divine, and, contrariwise to what you hold, I think that it and its tokens are visible for the very reason that God is invisible—viz., because they are to manifest Him. However, though I grant that there must be visible tokens of sanctity in the Church if the Church is to be considered divine, still, as the Spirit bloweth as it listeth, so its manifestation in works is according to no law and cannot be reckoned on.
As to the virtues of Catholics, I have lately been reading the following words of Lord Russell, an impartial witness, from his "Essay on the Christian Religion": "There is among Roman Catholics, in their relations to each other, a pure essence of affection which does not appear in the moral writings of Greece and Rome. The Roman Catholics, who have never practised or have relinquished the vices of erring youth, are humble, loving, compassionate, abounding in good works, kind to all classes of their fellow creatures, ever ready to say, 'God be merciful to me a sinner,' ready to give of their substance to the needy, ready to forgive others their trespasses, and kneel in humble devotion to their Maker." He speaks as if there were no middle class among us; but, if we were not living in sin, we were almost saints.
But leaving the highest and truest outcome of the Catholic Church and descending to history, certainly I would maintain firmly, with most writers on the Evidences, that, as the Church has a dark side, so (as you do not seem to admit) it has a light side also, and that its good has been more potent and permanent and evidently intrinsic to it than its evil. Here, of course, we have to rely on the narrative of historians, if we have not made a study of original documents ourselves. It would be a long business (assuming their correctness), but an easy business too, to show how Christianity has raised the moral standard, tone, and customs of human society; and it must be recollected that for 1500 years Christianity and the Catholic Church are in history identical. The care and elevation of the lower classes, the championship of the weak against the powerful, the abolition of slavery, hospitals, the redemption of captives, education of children, agriculture, literature, the cultivation of the virtues of piety, devotion, justice, charity, chastity, family affection, are all historical monuments of the influence and teaching of the Church. Turn to the non-Catholic historians, to Gibbon, Voigt, Hurter, Guizot, Ranke, Waddington, Bowden, Milman, and you will find that they agree in their praises, as well as in their accusations, of the Catholic Church. Guizot says that Christianity would not have weathered the barbarism of the Middle Age but for the Church. Milman says almost or altogether the same. Neander sings the praises of the monks. Hurter was converted by his historical researches. Ranke shows how the Popes fought against the savageness of the Spanish Inquisition. Bowden brings out visibly how the cause of Hildebrand was the cause of religion and morals. If in the long line there be bad as well as good Popes, do not forget that long succession, continuous and thick, of holy and heroic men, all subjects of the Popes, and most of them his direct instruments in the most noble and serviceable and most various works, and some of them Popes themselves, such as Patrick, Leo, Gregory, Augustine, Boniface, Columban, Alfred, Wulstan, Queen Margaret of Scotland, Louis IX., Vincent Ferrer, Las Casas, Turibius, Xavier, Vincent of Paul—all of whom, as multitudes besides, in their day were the life of religion.
I have hardly begun my answer to your question, yet I have written all this—but it is hard to be short on such a subject. I shall stop here, and hope in a few days to come to closer quarters with your main difficulty.