From the Thames to the Tiber
Roads to Rome: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day
By John Beaumont
Publisher: St. Augustine's Press
Pages: 494 pages
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
John Beaumont, in Roads to Rome, has put together the largest collection of notable British and Irish converts ever published. These converts are notable in that they had “a public element in their lives” or “set out reasons, usually in print” for their conversion. A labor of love, this book contains nearly a thousand entries — many of which include the names of family members who also became Catholic — and comes with an introduction by Joseph Pearce and a foreword by Marcus Grodi.
In each entry we find, if available, the date and place of birth, date of conversion and death, and a summary of the person’s life. There are often excerpts of writings by or about this person, stating the motives for conversion. The entries range in size from a paragraph to seven pages. Listed alphabetically, these entries make for surprising juxtapositions: Bl. Hugh Green, martyred by Puritans in 1642, stands cheek-by-jowl with novelist Graham Greene, who called himself a “Catholic-agnostic,” though he kept a picture of Padre Pio in his wallet till the end. Included here we find kings, courtiers, clergymen, warriors, philosophers, historians, novelists, artists, architects, barristers, bankers, actors, physicians — the gamut of notable society.
One of Beaumont’s aims is to bring to the reader’s attention some excellent sources of apologetics. Indeed, a bibliography of twentieth-century apologetics might be constructed from the works cited in these pages.
In recent decades, self-styled Catholic dissidents have flaunted their opposition to the Church’s moral teachings, complaining that the Vatican won’t change with the times. In Roads to Rome we discover many eminent converts flocking to the Church precisely because she is an authoritative, unswerving guide on morality. A century apart, Alice Meynell said that she needed a “guide in morals,” and Alice Thomas Ellis said that one could be “very free” and “very happy” within the “structure” of the Church. Stanley Arthur Morison knew he needed a “framework,” without which he feared he could become “a very wicked man indeed.” The homosexual Oscar Wilde lamented that much of his “moral obliquity” was due to his father’s preventing him from becoming a Catholic early on. He believed the “fragrance” of the Church’s moral teachings would have cured him of his “degeneracies.”
Thomas William Allies finally understood that Protestant morality consisted in “natural virtues,” a “worldly system of rewards” unsuitable for the work of the Crucified. Gerard Manley Hopkins found himself inspired by the Church’s “marvelous ideal of holiness,” and Arnold Lunn by her unrelenting thunder against sin and error. Malcolm Muggeridge was moved by the very teaching that enrages so many dissident Catholics today: the Church’s “firm stand against contraception and abortion.” In defense of Humanae Vitae, he wrote that “in the history books when our squalid moral decline is recounted, with the final breakdown in law and order that must follow,” Pope Paul VI’s “courageous and just” stand will be given the “respect and admiration it deserves.” G.E.M. Anscombe declared that the Pope had confirmed “the only doctrine which has ever appeared as the teaching of the Church on these things and in doing so incurred the execration of the world.” More recently, Ann Widdecombe observed that while the Church must accommodate sinners, “what you don’t do is accommodate sin.” These are but a few of the paeans to the beauty of Catholic morality found in Roads to Rome.
We hear of Catholics today leaping out of the Ark into the storm-tossed deluge because of sins committed by certain priests. It’s true that in the Creed one of the four marks of the Church is that she’s “holy,” but as we learn in Roads to Rome, scandals do not impinge on the Church’s holiness. Msgr. Walter Croke Robinson observes that “bad popes and bad priests never troubled me for a moment. The office and the man are so obviously distinct that the mind must be addled that does not see it at a glance.” Meriol Trevor says that Catholics do not see “any bad policies of Popes, corrupt practices of clerics, disciplinary injustices or devotional aberrations as invalidating the apostolic authority of the faith, or as interrupting the communication of divine life through the sacraments.” In short, the personnel (including Judas among the Twelve) are to be distinguished from the Bride of Christ. As Caryll Houselander poignantly observes, the abuses arising in the Church are “necessary, because they are the Passion. You see, the Church is Christ, and therefore Christ’s Passion must go on in the Church. Tragic, even frightening though it is, we know Christ better with the kiss of Judas on His face.”
Msgr. Ronald Knox explains that the Church makes us holy, not the other way around. Our Lord knew His Church would contain “rogues and honest men mixed,” not all of them bound for Heaven. Evelyn Waugh sees the Church as always having been at war with these “traitors from within.” And Stratford Caldecott reminds us that the Church remains the “sinless Bride of Christ” because “the all too evident sins of her members” are continuously washed by His blood.
Michael Coren finds the “historical failings” and “current lapses” irrelevant because what’s important is “the truth of a belief, not the failure or success of alleged followers to live up to that truth.” That is to say, the sins of the Church’s personnel are one thing, the unbending truth of her doctrines quite another.
In the Creed, two of the four marks of the true Church are “apostolic” and “catholic” — i.e., universal. A number of eminent converts in the 1990s, including George Gardiner, John Gummer, Peter Geldard, and Sheridan Gilley, saw the Church of England’s ordination of women as a break from the “apostolic Church.” Others like William Oddie saw it as saying: “We take to ourselves the power, apart from the universal church, to do something the rest of the universal Church will not do.”
In our time the European Union has refused to acknowledge the unique role of the Church in civilizing Europe. In Roads to Rome we find a counterpoint to that tragic denial: Msgr. Walter Croke Robinson hails the Church as a “huge objective fact” in European history for almost two millennia, during which time she has taught with a “living voice” and ruled with “incomparable discipline.” Denys Blakelock notes that for its failure to heed that living, authoritative voice, Europe is sinking today “into the abyss of disbelief and cynicism.” Kenneth Clark credits the Virgin Mary with teaching “a race of tough and ruthless barbarians the virtues of tenderness and compassion”; but without Christianity, Europe is unlearning those virtues.
Robert Hugh Benson speaks of the “absolute need of a living authority,” since written records suffice only for a “dead religion.” As Cyprian Blamires puts it, “God was incarnate as a man, not a book.” Ernest Messenger thinks it “very improbable” that Jesus Christ left only a book for each man to “read and interpret” for himself. For one thing, few could read before the nineteenth century, and for another, few could afford a Bible before printing expanded in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the theory is proven false by its results: a long series of divisions and sub-divisions in Protestantism. Lord Leonard Cheshire declares that the Bible was “never meant to be the sole and self-sufficient guide to God’s revelation,” for our Lord left a Church to be “nothing less than the direct continuation of His work on earth,” teaching with “divinely protected inerrancy.” Only one Church can “reasonably and plausibly pretend to speak with authority,” the one that traces “her ascent back to the Apostles.” As Ian Ker says, for Catholics the Bible has always been the Church’s possession.
For Catholic dissidents, the word dogma is like a red flag to a bull; yet many learned converts in Roads to Rome embraced Catholicism for its dogmas. Philosopher Peter Thomas Geach gives eloquent expression to our need for it: “The holding of some dogmas as true is essential to any religion’s being worth serious consideration: dogma is essential to religion as a shell to an egg or a skeleton to a human body, without it we have only a shapeless jelly. Undogmatic Christianity is a plain absurdity.” Dom Bede Camm came into the Church because she was “so firm, so invincible, so serene, so unfaltering in her teaching,” and Alan Pryce-Jones because she had a “strong and disciplined structure of belief, unaffected in its essentials by time or circumstances: a Rock of Ages.”
In the Creed, the first of the four marks of the true Church is that she is “one.” Numbers of converts have recognized this unity in the Petrine office. Gerard Manley Hopkins was drawn to the Church by reading Gospel passages like “Thou art Peter” and seeing “the position of St. Peter among the Apostles.” Bishop Christopher Butler found the evidence for the primacy of Peter among the Apostles to be “extensive and massive,” and said it pointed to the See of Rome as having “preserved the priceless gift of a unity.” For Denys Blakelock, the pope might be seen as “the lynchpin, as it were, by which the giant wheel of that great spiritual dynamo could revolve with perfect safety to the end of time.” And Msgr. Graham Leonard rejoiced that the pope gave the Church “a central authority” so that obedience might be given “not to a book nor to the resolutions of a committee nor to formularies nor to a trust deed but to a person who exercises his ministry as…. Servant of the Servants of God.”
Many other reasons for conversion are found in Roads to Rome. Edith Sitwell was drawn in by “the serenity in the faces of the peasant women praying in the churches in Italy,” and Maude Gonne, who had dabbled in the occult, by the need for the Church’s “protection and guidance.” A major factor in Charles Kegan Paul’s conversion was a miracle that took place in Lourdes; in Philip Trower’s it was the fact that miracles “continued in the Church right down to the present”; and in Christopher Dawson’s that Catholic saints and mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross made “even the greatest of non-Catholic religious writers seem pale and unreal.”
The sight of the early Church rising in the midst of Roman persecution has long filled converts with awe. Christopher Hollis, for one, asked himself what could account for it: “The believer’s explanation is that the Church triumphed through the direct, supernatural action of God. For the life of me I cannot see any other explanation which at all adequately accounts for that triumph.” Others like George Mackay Brown marveled at the Church’s continuance through the centuries: “That such an institution as the Church of Rome — with all its human faults — had lasted for nearly 2,000 years, while parties and factions and kingdoms had had their day and withered, seemed to me to be utterly wonderful. Some mysterious power seemed to be preserving it against the assaults and erosions of time.” Bl. John Henry Newman cut the Gordian knot when he declared plainly the Catholic religion was “the coming in of the unseen world into this.”
Roads to Rome is not just an important reference book that belongs in every college library, it is also a source-book and treasure trove of Catholic apologetics.
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