Hostile reactions from Catholics against the encyclical suggest the Church has lost its mission

This article by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge appeared in the Catholic Herald of August 9, 1968. We republish it today to mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

Muggeridge was eventually received into the Church 14 years later, at the age of 79.

If ten years ago I had considered the question of why I was not a Catholic I should have been inclined to say that, whereas the Roman Church in many respects filled me with admiration, the faith it taught was from my point of view wildly beyond acceptance.

Today I find the position almost exactly reversed. I believe in all humility that it might be possible for me to assent without fraudulence or disingenuousness to the essential propositions of the Catholic Faith, but the Roman Catholic Church as an institution seems to me fated to join the Gadarene slide on which our civilisation is clearly set. This has been particularly evident in the various hostile, and sometimes scandalous, reactions among Roman Catholics to the Pope’s encyclical on birth control. Through the hightide of scientific utopianism the Roman Church held splendidly aloof; now that this utopianism is discredited and at its last gasp, suddenly and inexplicably the Church is under increasing pressure to come forward as its half-hearted and faltering champion.

It is as though a garrison in a beleaguered fortress should hold out heroically against encirclement and repeated ferocious attacks from all sides. Then, just when the attacking forces have lost heart and are preparing to withdraw, the garrison emerges with a white flag to surrender.

The inane “optimism” of science has grown stale and distasteful even to those who continue to propound it; the sublime “pessimism” of the Christian religion, offering mankind a destiny infinitely transcending any that can be envisaged in terms of material prosperity or sensual pleasure, is correspondingly the more acceptable.

If ever there was an occasion to shout that the hopes and desires of this world are illusory, and the notion of progress one of the most debilitating ever to grip the human mind, surely it is now. Alas, one listens for the shout in vain.

Two things about the Roman Church have always particularly attracted me — that it appealed to the poor, and that almost alone of contemporary institutions it continued to offer serious and stubborn resistance to our drift, via liberalism and permissive morality, into moral chaos.

Whereas, I considered, Protestantism had become almost entirely “bourgeois,” appealing predominantly to dwindling middle class congregations, the poor still gathered before Roman Catholic altars, finding there the blessedness promised them in the Beatitudes.

Christianity, as Simone Weil pointed out, is a religion particularly for slaves. This is its glory. Instead of choosing the easy demagogic course of attacking the institution of slavery, the early Christians invited their followers to become slaves themselves— Christ’s slaves.

To me one of the most wonderful things about the story of Christendom has been this fact that the Church, with all its villainies and chicanery, has maintained its contact with the poor — unlike revolutionary movements which invariably win their support only to betray and oppress them.

The legatees of successful revolutions like Napoleon and Stalin grow to be hated by the poor, but the Church has miraculously continued to give them solace and hope: to brighten their lives with its music and liturgy, and to pass on to them Christ’s sweet promises. It was a signal distinction.

Now, as it seems to me, this unique position is being relinquished in favour of joining a Christian Consensus (Consensianity—the latest fad-religion) which aims at reversing Christ’s words, and making His Kingdom of this world.

If so, the Roman Church will assuredly meet with the same fate as other Christian bodies which have followed a like course. The Christian faith is other-worldly or nothing; the pursuit of happiness in terms of affluence and concupiscence, on which, following America, the nations of the West are now bent, can only result in the destruction of everything the Church came into existence to preach and to safeguard.

Anyway, a Church moving in such a direction is not one I should care to join, even though I can admire with all my heart the Pope’s splendidly courageous, but I fear in the long run unavailing, effort to reverse the trend. Our whole Christian way of life is cracking up at an accelerating rate. The young exemplify this crack-up, but it permeates everything and everyone.

We are watching the dismantling, stage by stage, of the moral order on which our civilisation is based, all in the name of progress and enlightenment, with the result that all other order — social, political, domestic — is fast disappearing with it.

Man does live by bread alone, make provision for the flesh and the lusts thereof, whoever will save his life will keep it; it is the flesh that quickeneth, the spirit profiteth nothing. So the great sayings of the New Testament become valid only in reverse.

Well, those who still read them the right way round are necessarily left on the sidelines. It seems to me now quite certain that, short of a miracle, the Roman Church is set to go with the contemporary tide.

It will be carried stage by stage, as the Protestant Churches have been, to relinquish all its positions. Married priests, lipstick nuns, permissive marriage, sanctified adultery, divorce and abortion, Catholic schools and colleges producing the same yahoos as non-Catholic ones — it will all happen; is happening.

If mankind is moving towards a worldwide Scandinavian paradise based on material prosperity and the pursuit of pleasure, as many believe, the Church will have no part in it.

The words of Jesus sound absurd in such a setting. If — as I consider far more probable — the quest for this worldwide Scandinavian paradise results in another Dark Ages, the Church, having helped to promote its coming, will be in no position to mitigate its consequences. It will be part of the darkness.

So individual Christians are left with the gospels, the saints and the living Christ — which, of course, is everything.