The Church and Human Progress | Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | From In Soft Garments: Classic Catholic Apologetics | Ignatius Insight
The two parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven are a pair, and are obviously meant to be a pair. Our Lord seems to have been fond of this method; partly, I suppose, on the principle that if you give two illustrations of a moral which you want to rub in, you can make sure of people seeing the real point, instead of going off on side issues; any speaker will tell you that. Partly, perhaps, because his audiences were mixed, and an illustration which would appeal to one set of them would not appeal to others. There were men there and women; and so you find him asking, "What man is there among you that hath a hundred sheep, and if he lose one of them ... ", and then, "Or what woman is there having ten groats, if she lose one of them ... "—he will suit his lesson to both classes. And so here; the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field; or again it is like the leaven which a Woman took and hid in three measures of meal. It is part of our Lord's great courtesy, that he will make allowances for everyone.
But at the same time you will find this about the parables which our Lord gives us in pairs: that the moral is not always quite the same in either case; the second will give it a slightly different twist from the first. And so it is here. By the kingdom of heaven our Lord customarily means, as I hope we all know, not the future life which we shall enjoy in heaven, but his Church on earth, which is the appointed means of conducting us to it. If there was nothing else to assure us of that, these two parables would be sufficient proof of it. Our Lord did not occupy his whole time, while he preached on earth, in expounding a philosophy of unworldliness, of sincerity, of forbearance, of loving our enemies and so on. He came to found a Church; and he foresaw how that Church would develop through the centuries and has prophesied for us, though it be only in rough outline, its development. And in these two parables, evidently, he is telling us how his Church is destined to grow. How small it looked, when he stood there and preached to groups of peasants standing by the lake of Galilee; or when, after his Ascension, a hundred and twenty souls waited in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit—just so the mustard seed is small; just so the bit of leaven is insignificant in size compared with the three measures of meal which are to be leavened by it. The influence of the Church grew secretly; people who lived in those early centuries didn't know what was happening, until they suddenly found that communities of Christians had sprung up in every corner of the empire; so the growth of a tree, or the working of leaven, is something hidden from us; we cannot stand by and watch it happening. The extension of his Church was an irresistible force; just so, given proper conditions of soil, the seed must develop; just so the leaven inevitably corrupts the unleavened meal with which it comes in contact. In all that, you see, the two parables are alike.
But there are other aspects, and very important aspects in which they differ. And in this above all, that the growth of the mustard seed shows you the Christian Church as a body which swells in size, whereas the spread of the leaven shows you the Christian Gospel as an influence which radiates force and communicates it to its neighbourhood. The tree takes something from its surroundings; takes nourishment from the earth and the moisture and the sunlight, and so grows bigger: and the Church takes something from her surroundings, takes the souls of men from the world and incorporates them into herself. The leaven gives something to its surroundings, infects them with its own life; so the Christian Gospel gives something to its surroundings; communicates to mankind its own spirit of discipline and its own philosophy of life. Both those processes, then, we should expect to see at work when we watch the development of the Christian Church in history.
And so far as the first part of the parable is concerned, the lesson of the mustard tree, there is no great difficulty in recognizing the description. Of course, it is quite true that the growth of the Church in mere numbers is not a steady, uniform process; it is chequered, again and again, by schisms and heresies from within, by persecutions from without, by world developments generally. But, in a sense, that makes it all the more remarkable; mere uninterrupted growth would not be so strong a proof of life beating within as the power to recover from a series of shocks and mutilations. This miracle of the Church's continual reviviscence is recognized even by outside, even by unfriendly critics. You probably know Macaulay's almost despairing passage in the essay on von Ranke, when he is writing about the state of Europe after the French Revolution: "The Arabs have a fable that the Great Pyramid was built by antediluvian kings, and alone of all the works of men bore the weight of the flood. Such as this was the fate of the Papacy. It had been buried under the great inundation; but its deep foundations had remained unshaken, and when the waters abated, it appeared alone amidst the ruins of a world which had passed away." That was written a hundred years ago; but the testimony is true of our own period. You have only to read history to realize that the mustard seed has grown.
But the leaven—has the leaven worked? There you will not find the critics of our religion forced into such attitudes of unwilling admission. I think the criticism which we find it most uncomfortable to meet is when they tell us that the Catholic Church is all right when you consider it a priori, on paper, as a system, but when you look at its actual record in history you do not find its effects on human life the kind of effects which you would expect a supernatural institution to have. The world, to be sure, has advanced a great deal since the times of our Lord. Slavery has given place to freedom, savagery to kindness, selfishness to philanthropy; men are no longer (in the more favoured countries) executed for slight offences, or tortured when they refuse to give evidence, or killed in duels; some attempt is made, at any rate, to give working men decent wages, and rescue them and their families from destitution; and in a thousand other ways it is possible to show that the world has become a more comfortable place to live in. But how much, we are asked, has all this to do with Christianity, or at any rate with the Catholic Church? Is it not true that the improvements which have been made in the condition of human living have been made, for the most part, without any effort of sympathy on the part of Catholics, and sometimes in the teeth of theIr opposition? And if that is so, how can we claim that the Catholic Church, as we find the Catholic Church in history, is the Church which our Lord referred to in his parables? How strange that the leaven which has leavened the world has not, noticeably at any rate, proceeded from her!
The answer to that kind of objection is not an easy one, and I think it is rather a humiliating one. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is this. During the period between the Ascension and the Reformation, that charge is not true. During the period between the Reformation and the French Revolution that charge is true, but it was not our fault; in great measure at least it was not our fault. In our own day, the situation has grown so desperately complicated that It defies analysis. What seems to emerge from it is that under modern conditions we Catholics ought, more than ever, to be taking the lead in enlightening the conscience of the world; that, largely, we are not doing it, and it is our fault that we are not doing it; and moreover, that in proportion as we do succeed in our efforts, we shall not be given any credit for it; we shall be cried down as much as ever by the prophets of materialistic humanitarianism for not going about it in a different and more wholehearted way.
It is quite true that the Catholic Church has never made social reform the first plank in her programme; you might say that where she leavens society she always does so in a fit of absence of mind. Her message has always been addressed to the individual soul, rather than to the political community. St Paul could tell masters to be kind to their slaves, without saying they must set them free; and it was only gradually that slavery itself or even the cruel sports of the amphitheatre were abolished. It was only gradually that serfdom disappeared in the Middle Ages. But these changes did happen, and in the meantime the world had learned more respect for women, more sympathy for the poor; education became more general, laws became less harsh in their enforcement, as the spirit of the Christian religion asserted itself. You cannot pick out the names of the great reformers, but that was because the whole process was so gradual and almost unconscious; gradual, yes, and unnoticed, but that is the way of the leaven when it goes to work.
Since the Reformation, or perhaps you ought to say since the great schism which divided the world shortly before the Reformation, it has been true on the whole that the Church was no longer responsible for civilizing the world; but then, it was not altogether her fault. The Protestants, in the first days of the Reformation, were not a yard ahead of her; and as late as the middle of the eighteenth century you could find a man like Whitefield, the great Methodist preacher, owning slaves. But the point is that the Church was on the defensive, almost everywhere; she had to consolidate her own position against rival claimants; and she exhausted much of her strength and of her sanctity in propaganda or in controversy. Nor were the Popes able, in those days of stress and contention, to impose their will on Catholic nations. The worst evils of slavery flourished, in spite of energetic protests; duelling was maintained by the social fashion of an age, in spite of stringent condemnations of it. Again, it is to be remembered that the most prominent Catholic nation during most of that period was France; and France was sitting very loose to its ecclesiastical obedience; the Pope's word did not run among the French clergy as it runs nowadays. Catholics were too much concerned over the future of the mustard seed to notice much what was happening to the leaven.
With the French Revolution, a new phase sets in. In England and in the United States you could hardly expect Catholics to take any prominent share in the business of reform, because their numbers were infinitesimal. In the various European countries where the Church was still strong, she found herself everywhere attacked by the same people who were using the language of humanitarianism and of reform. Men were slow to distinguish her, and perhaps it must be admitted that she was slow to distinguish herself, from those parties of mere reaction which the new Liberalism assailed. And that difficulty persists right down to our own day. Only, of course, in our day the issues are not so direct as they seemed in the last century. The cry for reform has given place to a cry for revolution; the language of hate has replaced, among the humanitarians, the language of love. And all over Europe new nationalisms have grown up, sometimes friendly to the Church, sometimes at issue with her, but always in their inspiration something foreign to her thought. Meanwhile, both in our own country and still more across the Atlantic, Catholic numbers have grown, especially among the more educated classes, and the influences of the other Christianities has waned, so that men look to the Church, more than they did formerly, to tell them what the Christian religion really preaches. That means that we have a greater responsibility than our parents and our grandparents had for diffusing, in a world that has begun to take notice of us, the leaven of Christian charity.
Only, don't think that we are going to get any credit for it. Don't imagine I am suggesting that we Catholics ought to take a greater share than we do in the fight for human happiness because it will be good propaganda for our religion if we do. For the whole of your lifetimes, probably, everything that we Catholics do or propose to do in that line will be viewed with suspicion, will be misrepresented; we shall be told that we are only half-hearted reformers, trying to take the wind out of other people's sails. That is because we cannot afford to neglect principles, cannot afford to leave out one half of the truth. We have got to love peace, without despising and belittling man's instinct of patriotism; we have got to redress injustice without violating essential human liberties; we have got to work for the relief of human misery without defying the sanctities of the Divine Law. So we shall always be at a disadvantage compared with other reformers who can only see one set of principles at a time, and we shall get no thanks for our interference.
Why is it, then, that we have got to take our part, more than we did, in trying to make this temporary world of ours a better place to live in? Because the Gospel of Christ is essentially a leaven, a dynamic force in human affairs , and we shall be false to our whole vocation if we treat the imperfections of human society as if they were something that didn't matter. We shall be tempted to do so; we are tempted to do so. The world around us is so full of social experiments and of party war-cries, and the people who are keen on these things are generally such boring people to meet, that we are tempted to throw ourselves back on our isolation and say, "Well, there's no room in the world for any more reformers just now; as long as I live a decent Catholic life in private, I can afford to spend my time dancing and going to the pictures and getting all the fun out of life that I can." To do that is to starve the instincts of your age and period, a dangerous thing to do. Don't, for heaven's sake, imagine that I am recommending you all to spend your time up here going to meetings, signing petitions and carrying them round for other people to sign, and contributing to the kind of book or magazine which is understood to be the finest flower of recent undergraduate thought. It is quite extraordinary what a lot of good is not done by that sort of thing. No, what I am suggesting is that, since you are here to be educated, you should pay some attention—whatever attention your ordinary work and engagements permit—to getting some grasp of the problems which are exercising the modern world, and not merely studying these in the light of your religion, so that you may be able to give a good account of what the Church teaches, and why, and why on certain subjects she has no special teaching to offer, although everybody else in the world has a ready-made solution of his own. I am suggesting that you should prepare yourselves here for taking a decent amount of interest in public affairs later on, and making your own contribution to the needs of your time, according to your opportunities.
One word needs to be added, not less important. Our Lord says that the mustard tree is to grow out of all recognition; he doesn't say that it is to grow indefinitely, does not mean us to understand that there will ever be a time at which the whole of mankind will be even nominally Christian. His prophecy that his Gospel will be preached in the whole world is sufficiently fulfilled if all mankind has a real chance of hearing it. Similarly, when he says that the leaven hidden in the meal spread till the whole was leavened, I don't think we are necessarily to understand this as meaning that there will be a time at which the principles of Christian charity towards one's neighbour will dominate the counsels of humanity. We are to understand that the Christian message will make itself felt throughout the world which harbours it, not necessarily that it will triumph. Don't be disappointed, therefore, if it appears—it may perfectly well come to appear so in your lifetime—as if things were going backwards instead of forwards, as if the world were relapsing into barbarism instead of following along the path marked out for it by what we call civilization. Don't be disappointed, above all, if during your lifetime the Church, despite her best efforts, still seems to be fighting a rearguard action, and losing, if anything, in the modern struggle for existence. As I said before, the social influence of the Church is in reality a by-product of her activity; it is not her life.
Her business, ultimately, is with the individual soul, and the promises by which she lives are not limited within these narrow horizons. The leaven is there, and it does not lose its virtue with the centuries. But whether in our particular age the time is ripe for its manifestation, that we cannot know. God's view is longer than ours, and for all we can tell we may be living in the early Church still; our modern troubles may be only the growing-pains of Christianity. It will be our fault if we lose heart.
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Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester and it appeared that he, being both spiritually perceptive and intellectually gifted, would also have a successful life as an Anglican prelate. But while in school in the early 1900s Knox began a long struggle between his love for the Church of England and his growing attraction to the Catholic Church. He converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-nine, became a priest, and wrote numerous books on spiritual and literary topics, including The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes, The Hidden Stream: The Mysteries of the Christian Faith, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, and many more. Visit Knox's IgnatiusInsight.com author page for more information about his life and work.
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