>Last evening I enjoyed the speaking-text feature on my new Kindle, and devoured a short story by the great 19th century novelist Honoré de Balzac entitled “Christ in Flanders”. It is something of an unusual, disjointed piece, in that it begins with the recounting of a popular Flemish legend about Jesus appearing to a group of people about to be shipwrecked, and concludes with an allegorical vision experienced by the narrator that is unrelated to the shipwreck legend. While the first half of the story is an interesting, almost Medieval, cautionary tale about the dangers of the Seven Deadly Sins, the latter is something of a mess that reminded me of nothing so much as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”.
The gist of the vision part of the story is that the narrator sees the Church as being in desperate need of reform. He also appears to vacillate between whether this is still possible, or whether the Church is in its death-throes. Although recognizing the great historical contributions of the Church to art, science, architecture, and so on, the narrator questions whether, by becoming so closely involved in statecraft, the Church had doomed itself to destruction.
Balzac’s narrator – presumably speaking for Balzac himself – throws in a remarkably prescient line for someone who lived through the tumultuous history of France at the turn of the 19th century. As he considers all that he has seen, the narrator comes to an important conclusion about Christianity: “Belief,” I said to myself, “is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of a monarchy, now we must defend the church.” The narrator/Balzac does not want to give up on the Church, but does see a challenging period ahead for her.
It is no surprise that, in questioning establishment philosohpy, Balzac made a number of enemies. There is no question that Balzac was perhaps one of the greatest novelists of the intersection of social manners and base human motivations. If you want to see how the rich take advantage of the poor, the strong of the weak, and later earn their comeuppance, it is hard to do better. Yet Balzac always seems somewhat out of his depth when he turns to considerations of political philosophy. In this particular case, while he is certainly correct – if controversial – in pointing out certain of the defects of the Church of his day, he is less adept in understanding the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of it.
The cultured man who also happens to be a practicing Catholic needs to be able, in the course of his cultural education, to consider arguments against the Church when presented in a thoughtful fashion. In this case we are not talking about (the usually) hysterical, shrill, self-identified Catholics and others who deliberately take positions or practices explicitly condemned by the Church and are seeking to bait an argument. Nor do I suggest that most of us should waste our time by engaging with those committing acts of blasphemy – though ironically enough, it would be considered blasphemy in many corners of the secular world to suggest that, while Balzac may certainly have made some valid points in this story, he was ultimately wrong about the fate of the Church.
One interesting way to look at this is to consider the Papacy from the standpoint of canonizations of the Bishops of Rome. In Balzac’s day, the most recent Pope to have been canonized a saint was St. Pius V, who died in 1572 and was canonized in 1712. Before that, the most recently canonized pope had been St. Celestine V, who died in 1294 and was canonized in 1313. To put it another way, at the time Balzac wrote his short story in 1831, only two Popes had been canonized as saints and three declared “Blesseds”, in over 500 years and 62 papacies.
Since Balzac died in 1850 however, there have only been 11 papacies over the past 160 years. Of these 11 popes, one is now a canonized saint, two are now “Blesseds”, and several have their causes for canonization open. Indeed, no doubt many of my readers are aware of speculation that Pope John Paul II, the longest occupant of the Chair of St. Peter since St. Peter himself, will be the next to join the ranks of these recent Pontiffs as a “Blessed”.
Of course, the number of saintly popes alone is no proof of anything. The fact that there are more men recognized as being true servants of the Bride of Christ over the last century and a half than there were over much of the preceding millennium is merely a possible, interesting indicator of changes going on within the Church. Any organization run by human beings, no matter how lofty and laudable its goals, is going to have its good and bad aspects, its good and bad leaders, and the Church on earth is no exception.
What Balzac in his day, and other commentators in ours, continually fail to understand is that the Church may have been founded by God, but the day-to-day running of the place has been left to the servants – and as my rather grand grandmother would say, getting properly trained staff who don’t steal from you is a miracle in and of itself. It must emphatically be said that we are an organization comprised entirely of sinners, not saints, latter-day or otherwise. Christ promised us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but He did not promise that by nature of either becoming a Christian or working for the Church that one becomes completely free from the possibility of committing sin.
That being said, I would go so far as to say that the Church, which Balzac feared would not recover its raison d’être, disproved the author’s prediction: the Church did not die anywhere but in the Leftist, secular Europe which Balzac himself, among others, helped to create, and in fact it continues to grow at a remarkable rate, even as it changes. Of course, what Balzac would make of the dynamism of the Church today would be nothing more than speculation on my part. Yet I would suggest to my Catholic readers who are well-grounded in the Faith and are able to take a bit of criticism, this little work of Balzac’s is worth your consideration. The truth always hurts, and there is certainly some truth in Balzac’s observations of the Church of his day in this story. Fortunately however, what he foresaw did not come to pass.
Detail of “The Triumph of the Church of Christ” by
an Unknown Flemish Master (c. 1450)
Museo del Prado, Madrid