On the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, English, for November 4, 2016, we find two headlines occasioned by the Holy Father’s trip to Sweden on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. One headline reads: “On the Path toward Full Communion,” while the second one reads “Changing History.”
I probably would not have paid much attention to these headlines were it not for the fact that a neighbor had just given me a photocopy of Msgr. Ronald Knox’s famous satirical essay “Reunion All Round,” an essay found in his 1928 Sheed & Ward book, Essays in Satire. Even back in ancient times like 1928, we find rumblings about the reunification of the Christian churches and other religions into what has come to be called in our time “The World Parliament of Religion.” World government, it seems, prefers to have these myriads of religious fanatics under one management roof. All believers, no matter what they maintain, should come together in a spirit of brotherly love to solve the world’s problems, which, to tell the truth, are mostly caused, according to their critics, by their stubborn and insignificant differences.
Knox’s essay is most amusing. The text is printed in that old Germanic script that for the letter “s,” as in “ss,” prints “ff,” with “ct” joined by a curve from the “c” to the “t.” The essay, in fact, is filled with theology, canon law, liturgical practices, and the history of religion. Right away, we catch the flavor of the proposal from the initial dedication: “Being a Plea for the Inclufion within the Church of England of all Mahometans, Jews, Buddhifts, fubmitted to the confideration of the British Public.” Definitely, this is a “modest,” refined proposal, on the model of Swift.
At first sight, of course, the differences of religious belief and practice appear insurmountable. Things like marriage customs and metaphysical perceptions hamper the way. But this proposal comes from that “liberal mind” that sees all things happily reconcilable with proper attention to compromise, compassion, and, yes, contradiction.
Openness to everything is the key operative concept in resolving all ecclesial difficulties. “There is no progress in Humanity,” we read, “without the surmounting of Obstacles; thus we are now all agree’d that Satan, far from meaning any harm to our Race when he brought Sin into the World, was most excellently dispos’d toward us.…” Needless to emphasize, this rendering Satan benevolent is a definite advance in theological thinking. It has been too long since anyone has put in a good word for Satan.
What was Satan up to, then? He did not want the human race “languishing” in that state of innocent bliss in which the poor angels found themselves bored to death. He wanted to put a little “excitement” into our lives. So we can all now agree to set aside this slander too often perpetrated by the preachers against the Angel of Light that Lucifer was.
With this understanding that the causes given for divisions within Christendom are all illusory, a new future seems open. “I conceive, then, that within a few years of the present Date , the Division of Christians into Sects for purposes of Worship will have utterly disappeared, and we shall find one great United Protestant Church extending throughout the civilized World.” Even though we are now some ninety years away from this pioneering endeavor, we see, as I intimated, signs that its spirit is not wholly dead.
With confidence in progress, we may still find problems with odd branches like the Seventh Day Adventists. They demand that Saturday be a day of rest. The solution is easy. Make both Saturday and Sunday days of rest. We thus have “two days instead of one in every seven in which we can lie abed till Noon, overeat ourselves, go out driving in the Country, and dine away from home under the colour of sparing trouble to our Domesticks.” We have here both an eminently practical solution and an unexpected view of the status of Sabbath spiritual activities of the faithful on the days of rest throughout the Empire.
The Orthodox, then as now, seem to present a special problem for the unifiers. This “Filioque [controversy about the Creed] will clearly have to disappear.” Since the Creed is made up of reactions to differing heresies, most of which still need reconciling, the solution would be for a communal recitation of the Creed in which one only says that part with which he agrees. The Russian solution, which could be assigned also to the Sultan of Turkey, of letting state power decide doctrine seems likewise possible.
But a further problem arises with the Orthodox, namely their Liturgy, in which fireworks are set off at New Year’s. The Orthodox are hundreds of years out-of-date with their ancient language, their “Mumblings, Bobbings, Bowings, Shutting and Opening of Doors, Kissings, Gesticulatings, etc.” Also all icons need to be lifted high on church walls so that “nobody will worship them.”
In the treatment of what to do about Muslims, the reform proposal was clearly far ahead of its time. We see the same problems today, after the 2016 immigrant-invasion of Europe, that were envisioned in this unification proposal. We definitely cannot any longer call Mohammed a “false Prophet.” His only real quarrel with the Christian sects was over “Mariolatry and some unduly strict views they held about marriage.” Again this controversy could be solved. The Muslim practice of four wives and the Christian practice of one could split the difference, with each having two. This would solve the problem that the Muslims had with the supply of enough women to meet the demand of four to each man.
This compromise, this reliance on Mathematics to solve irreconcilable issues, applies to another area of Muslim and Christian differences. “We shall, of course, adopt at the same time the Mahometan Rule, by which a man may at any time turn his Wife out of doors, upon finding her displeasing to himself, and take a new one, modifying it only so far, as to extend the Privilege equally with the Wife, so as to the Husband.” This solution seems quite reasonable.
Another issue came up about liturgical practices. The Muslims like to chant from their Sacred Book. So some compromise could be worked out in the First Reading in the Christian Liturgy. “Since we have nowadays so little use for the Old Testament, Readings from the Coran should be substituted for it in the Divine Service.” Lest we think this approach might lead to some problem, we have the following rationale, which follows some of the recent discussions about a German critical edition of the Qur’an:
If any man object that this [reading of the Coran at Liturgy] might lead to a superstitious Belief in the Facts therein alleg’d, I would point out for his Comfort that in a very short Time the Critical Study will come to be expended on the latter Book [Coran], which has hitherto investigated the former [the Old Testament], with such happy Results; and consequently within twenty years’ time we should be in no more danger of giving Credit to the Miracles of Mahomet, than we are in now of stomaching the History of Joshua.
On another contemporary note, mindful of the pleas for dialogue, we recall the fact that “There are the [Muslim] Assassins, who hold it to be just and lawful to kill a man in virtue of a Disagreement about Religion, and did lately murder a man very horribly in the city of Paris.” The advice here, however, is not to treat these killers as public Enemies, but “as erring Brethren.” These Assassins should be admitted into the community of religions. And we should preach to them from our sacred books. They will see that such killing gives rise to “blood-feuds” and its widespread practice makes the “Tenure of Life” for all of us less secure. When we reason with these violent gentlemen in this pious way, “doubtless in a very short time they would have learned to take a more lenient view of doctrinal Irregularities.”
But the Muslims are not the only ones needing reconciliation. Most of the early heresies came out of the notion that matter is evil. Such a doctrine is simply unheard of among the “Thinkers of our Time.” It seems that ”Enlightened People like ourselves” are more interested in things that we do “with Fists, Feet, and Muscles … than any activity of the Brains.” If matter were evil, we would not “seek bodily Health by every possible means.” The way to avoid this evil Manichean thesis is to recognize that all the bad things are “necessary evils” and thus have no moral import for us.
Whether the Church of Rome can be accommodated is a special problem. “I know we are commonly told, That this will never be achiev’d, by Reason of Extreme Obstinacy and Perversity of this Sect.” This Roman stubbornness is based on numbers. When the Papists see their numbers declining, they will become more flexible. “Science helps us. We know “now that all Survival in the World is a Survival of the Fittest, and that two Instincts chiefly make an Organization fit to survive, namely the Will to Live and the Desire to propagate its kind.” The Roman cult of Martyrs and Celibacy should soon take care of this problem. The then noted increase of Catholic numbers was not due principally to conversions but to the immigration of the Irish. These prolific folks at the time were busy “stocking five Continents with Papists.”
To halt this danger, it was proposed at the time (shades of the future abortion industry and one-child Chinese law) that “We should make it a criminal Offense for the future, that any Papist should be allowed to marry, or have Issue: the Offense itself to be punished with Death, and the resulting Issue to be expos’d on some Hill-side, lest it should grow up infected with the gross Superstition of its Parents.” If we look today back on the present condition of the Papists in Ireland, we can see that this worry of an Irish take-over of the world was grossly exaggerated.
In this coming unified world religion, only one doctrinal issue would be required. Everyone is to take a “Declaration of Loyalty to the Church.” It would be an Affirmation of a general Dissent from the Doctrines contain’d in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.” Surely anyone could agree to make such a “dissent”: “I firmly dissent from any doctrinal statement.”
What to do about the Pope and the Cardinals? “The Pope himself I would allow to take the rank of a retir’d Military Bishop, thus leaving him with the Insignia of Power, without any Sphere in which to exercise it.” And “the Cardinals I would disperse among the Common-rooms of Oxford and Cambridge where they could exercise their Talent for Intrigue without having any serious effect.”
Finally we come to the Atheists. They present a lesser problem than the religionists who differ on all sorts of minor inherited doctrine and practice. The Atheists have “only one single Quarrel to patch up, namely, as to whether any God exists, or not.” All we need to do is to “ease” their “conscience on this single matter.” They have no real reliance to any inherited view of what to profess.
If we could get our theologians to agree that God is both “Existent and Non-Existent,” then we could each affirm with confidence our position without hurt to the other view. With this marvelously illuminating approach, we can all live together and profess a common Creed. We can “recognize the Divine Governor of the Universe as One who exists, yet does not exist, causes Sin, yet hates it, yet does not punish it, and promises us in Heaven a Happiness, in which we shall not have any Consciousness to enjoy.” This solution, no doubt, is the perfect resolution of the famous controversy between negative and positive theology about whether we best affirm what God is or what he is not.
The concluding exhortation is admirable. It could in fact have been written by the present Justices of the Supreme Court, or by the philosophical faculty of most any expensive university in the world. It reads: “Thank God in these days of Enlightenment and Establishment, everyone has a right to his own Opinions, and chiefly to the Opinion, That nobody else has a right to theirs. It shall go hard, but within a century at most we shall make the Church of England true to her Catholic vocation, which is, plainly, to include within her Borders every possible Shade of Belief.”
On finishing such an inspiring treatise, we can perhaps wonder whether the satirical essay is not, in fact, a form of prophecy.