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Thornberry Abbey : a Tale of the Times

Brownson's Quarterly Review, October, 1846

ART. VI. — Thornberry Abbey:  a   Tale  of the   Times.     New York: Dunigan.    1846.    18mo.    pp. 244.

THIS makes the fourth number of Dunigan's Home Library, and, as a literary production, is the most finished of any number of the series which has yet appeared. It is reprinted from an English work, founded on incidents supplied by the recent extraordinary movement in the Anglican Establishment. Though we take a deep interest in our own literature, and are ready to welcome any work of merit from an American author, we think Mr. Dunigan has done well to depart from his original intention, of confining himself to domestic productions, and to include this interesting tale in his series of works for popular reading. Mr. Dunigan is one of our most liberal and enterprising publishers, and he has a laudable desire to encourage native talent, and to call forth a domestic literature for the Catholic public ; but we are inclined to think his attempt somewhat premature. For the present, better works, works far better adapted to nourish and strengthen the Catholic life, may be obtained from Ireland and England, or by translation from the French and German, Italian and Spanish, than we can ourselves produce.

The time is not distant when we may engage in the work of producing a national literature in earnest and with success. There is to be an American literature which will compare favorably, and more than favorably, with the most admired literatures of the world, and this literature is to be the product of Catholic America. The present national literature is virtually infidel, and must be shortlived ; Protestantism, which is a reaction against Christianity, must soon burst and vanish in thin air, with its works ; modern civilization, as distinguished from the ancient Greek and Roman, is Christian, has been the work of the Church, and is informed with the Catholic spirit, and will not assimilate to itself what is not Catholic. It may receive it as an indigestible mass for a time, but must, sooner or later, expel it as a foreign substance. The heathen and the utmost parts of the earth are given to our Lord for his inheritance and possession, and no attempt to wrest them from him will succeed. They must all come under his law. Catholicity is the only living or lifegiving principle in the world, and no national literature not Catholic can really flourish, and attain a permanent growth, or a respectable rank among the living literatures of the world. There need be no question, then, as to the fact that Catholic America will be the author of our national literature. This we look upon as settled.

But, at present, we are not in the condition to make any important contributions to this national literature. National literature is the expression of the national life, and follows the formation of the national character. The Greek character preceded Greek literature, and the Koman character was fixed centuries before there was a Koman literature. Our national character is not yet formed. What we term our national character is merely provisional, and will disappear, or be essentially modified, when the mass of our people cease to be Protestants and infidels, and place themselves in harmony with Christian civilization. The real American character is yet to be formed, and to be formed under Catholic influences. It is to Catholic America we are to look ; for it alone is living and has the promise of the future ; and Catholic America as yet hardly exists. Our Catholic population is not yet homogeneous, has no common national character. It is Irish, French, German, and each division retains the national peculiarities of the country from which it has emigrated. There has been, as yet, no time to melt down the mass, and combine its separate elements in a new national character, neither Irish, nor French, nor German, but composed of the real excellences of each. The portion descended from the early American settlers are themselves as far as either of the others from possessing what is to be, ultimately, the American character ; for, as to their social habits, literary tastes, their general culture, as to all, in fact, not strictly of faith, they are Erotcstant rather than Catholic. Now, till this fusion takes place, till national diversities and peculiarities lose themselves in one common national character, with common habits, views, tastes, and feelings, we have not the indispensable conditions of a national literature. The native American portion demand a literature which smacks of the provisional national character; the Irish require their national tastes and peculiarities to be addressed ; and the French and Germans cannot be pleased to have theirs neglected. All this is natural and inevitable. It implies no reproach to one or to another. Nobody can blame the German because his affections cluster around his fatherland, and his heart is moved by the songs of the Rhine, as it cannot bo by those of the Ohio and the Mississippi ; the Irishman is not censurable because his heart turns to " the Green Isle of the Ocean," — all the dearer from the memory of her wrongs, — and because no strains can touch him like those to which he listened in his childhood ; nor any more the native American for finding dearest to him those accents which soothed him in the caresses of his mother.    Cold is the heart that does not beat quicker at the mention of its native land, and that does not linger with its sweetest affections around its early home, the only home it ever finds in this wide world. Dear to us is that home of our childhood, and fresh are the breezes which come freely over the green hills which skirt it. No sky is so serene as that which bends over it; no sun so bright as that which shines on it; no air so pure as that we breathed when in it, before the wanderings, the turmoils, and cares of life began. Wo love that mountain home ; we love its very look, its tone, and its simple manners, and we find elsewhere nothing to compensate for their loss. We complain not that the emigrant turns fondly to his fatherland, and clings to the life he received from it. No people ever becomes great which is not thoroughly national, and which cannot more easily part with life than with its nationality. All we say, or mean to say, is, that our Catholic population is collected from different nations,with diverse national characters; and while they are so, before they become homogeneous in their character, we cannot find in them the public requisite for the creation and growth of a national literature. This, however, is only a temporary obstacle, and will soon disappear. But while it remains, we cannot do much for a national literature, and must content ourselves with such works as address themselves to the intellect alone, or to those sentiments and aflections which are common to all men, whatever the diversity of their national origin or breeding.

But even if we had the public, we have not the authors. This is yet a missionary country, and the clergy, on whom the literature of every country mainly depends, are so few in proportion to the number of the faithful who need their services, their professional duties are so great, so pressing, and so arduous, that they have little leisure for purely literary pursuits. The field of their labors is in the obscure courts, the dark lanes, the damp cellars, the unven-tilated garrets, in the hut of poverty, by the side of wretchedness and grief, administering to the sick and dying, fathers to the fatherless, friends to the friendless, pouring the oil and wine into the broken heart, and binding up the bruised spirit; and we would not see them abandoning this field for the low and comparatively unimportant calls of literature and science. They have the learning, the genius, the ability, for a rich and living literature ; but they have a higher vocation, more glorious duties, and too deep a love for souls to neglect them.

After the clergy, where are our authors ? The literary portion of the nations which have furnished us our Catholic population do not emigrate. The mass of emigrants are from the poorer and less educated classes, with some individual exceptions, surely; and their motive for emigrating is, not to call forth an American literature, but to better their worldly condition, and to leave a richer worldly inheritance to their children. The laity born among ourselves, whether of later or earlier emigrants, educated as they are in a Protestant atmosphere, with literary habits and tastes formed on Protestant models, are but poorly qualified to give tone and character to Catholic literature. They may be able to write well in exposition and defence of the faith, if they take the pains to inform themselves, and do not feel themselves too proud to submit what they write, hefore going to press, to the criticism and revision of the authorized teacher; but the moment they attempt to go beyond what is set down for them, aspire to be original, and to speak out from their own spontaneous life, as every man must do if he is to attain to any literary excellence, they betray their Protestant tastes and associations, and exert an influence altogether unfavorable to the growth ami purity of Catholic life. Our own schools and colleges will, in time, correct this evil ; but as yet ihey have not corrected it. Most of them are of too recent origin to have exerted much influence, and none of them have sent out many Catholic scholars who have remained in the ranks of the laity. Rut foxv Catholic parents have been able to educate their children abroad, and it cannot bo denied that the education of our laity, thus far, has been but partially Catholic. Even our schools have been for Protestants as much as for ourselves, and, through a real or supposed necessity, we have had to submit to all the evils of a mixed education, alike unfavorable to Catholics and Protestants. Hence, those among our laity who are educated have more or less of a Protestant incrustation, and, when it comes to pure literature, write as much in the Protestant as in the Catholic spirit.

We speak of literature proper, of works intended for popular reading. These are the works which need the most to be looked after. The most influential writers, whether for good or for evil, are those who are taken from the ranks of the people, and who write for the people. They may exert an influence wholly repugnant to our holy religion, and do immense harm, without departing in a single instance from the strict letter of the faith. We have ourselves had frequent occasion to examine books professedly Catholic, and designed for popular reading, which, though we could not lay our finger on a passage absolutely heterodox, breathed a purely Protestant tone and spirit, wholly offensive to the Catholic instinct. The tone and spirit of a book intended for the people is the main thing. The distinct and formal statements of a popular book are not what produces its effects on the mass of readers. It is the unconscious life of the author diffused through the work, and which he could not avoid diffusing through it, if he would, that determines its influence for good or for evil. Hence the reason why the Church is so strict in her discipline, and shows so little mercy especially to the purely literary works of heretics. She knows that a literary work of any worth, in a literary point of view, must be, to a considerable extent, the expression of the life of its author,
and therefore, if the author be a heretic, it must contain a secret poison which will prove at least hurtful to the purity and strength of the Catholic life. This same poison may be imbibed by a Catholic who lives and breathes in an heretical atmosphere, and be diffused through his works as well as through those of a Protestant, and will be none the less dangerous because he is a Catholic.

We all know that Protestantism at present predominates in this country. Those of our laity most likely to write for the people are those among us who are most exposed to its influence, and the most likely to be affected by it. They are not exactly scholars by profession ; they have not received a thoroughly Catholic training ; they are persons of general information and of general reading ; but they arc readers of modern, and chiefly Protestant, literature. They are, no doubt, firm Catholics, and would sooner die than knowingly depart from the faith ; but, half Protestantized in their views of things in general, and taking it for granted that all the difference between Catholics and Protestants lies in the formal differences between their respective creeds, they write in a tone and spirit which can do no good, and which can hardly fail to do immense harm. We are not censuring them. They cannot make themselves other than they are, and they cannot write without writing themselves. No man can. We only say, they cannot write books which it is always safe to circulate among the people, and cannot create and build up a Catholic national literature. Their works have a natural tendency to lower the Catholic tone, to relax the Catholic spirit, and to sully, if not corrupt, the virgin purity of the Catholic soul. Hence, where their works circulate, we miss the high and lofty, stern and uncompromising, Catholic public sentiment which is needed, both for our own sakes and for the sake of those who arc without. A low and half-compromising tone among Catholics is of the greatest disadvantage to Protestants, for it tends to confirm them in their fatal errors. When we were ourselves Protestant, we were accustomed to hear our friends remark on the character and spirit of Catholics in this country. " Catholics, here," they were accustomed to say, " live and breathe in a Protestant atmosphere. They may retain the forms of their faith and worship, but they soon lose the Catholic spirit. They become assimilated to us in tone and sentiment, and their grandchildren are sure to be absorbed in the Protestant community." Protestants are thus led to think only of seeing Catholics assimilating to them, and not at all of the necessity of their becoming Catholics. There is more foundation for their remarks than there should be, and our grandchildren will be more likely to be Protestants or infidels than Catholics, unless Catholics arc on their guard against the fatal influences in the midst of which they live, and, for tho present, must live. Their best protection, after placing themselves under that of God and his Holy Mother, is to dare be Catholics, and to assert and
maintain a free, high, and uncompromising Catholic spirit, to refuse all assimilation with Protestantism, to derive their ideas on all subjects from Catholic sources alone, and to distrust every thing, however harmless it may appear, that has an heretical origin.    The truer, firmer, more devoted, more exclusive Catholics we are, the more influential we shall be, the more respect shall we command, and the more agreeable will be our social position.    No man need lose caste in this country by being a Catholic.    Let him be true to his Church, and no harm can befall him, even in his temporal life. We shall not be misunderstood.    We do not contend that Catholics should, on all occasions and in all companies, obtrude their faith and Church.

There is a time for all things.    There are the common courtesies of civilized life, there are the reciprocal obligations and the kind offices of good neighbourhood, which, of course, are never to be neglected, — a respect for the rights and the honorable feelings of others, which are always to be scrupulously observed.    But what we urge is, that we remember always that the Church holds the first place in every Catholic's affections, and that all in life is to be subordinated to the one great end of pleasing God and gaining heaven.    This should always be present to our souls, and influence or determine the spirit of all we do or say.   In regard to literature, we do not ask that the Catholic always wield the tomahawk and battle-axe of controversy, that he be ever formally stating the claims of his Church, and denouncing all who are not within its pale.    There is enough of all this in our literature as it is.    But what we do want is the Catholic soul, the Catholic spirit, which shall unconsciously pervade all we write, and inform every sentence and word, so that whoever takes up one of our works, at whatever page he opens, shall feel that its author could have been none other than a Catholic.    It is this which gives such power and unction to the writers of the ages of faith.    They say little of the Church, little of religion, unless treating it professedly, make no professions of faith or piety, but every word betrays them, and the very servant-girls take notice that they have been with Jesus, and must have been genuine Catholics.   It is this which makes them so precious and edifying to the Catholic, and so insipid or offensive to the Protestant.    "We would see this revived.    Would that forty years of heresy had  not forbidden us, personally, to hope to be able, before dying, to write, as a Catholic should write, out from a life that had never been sullied by a single Protestant association ! But, alas !   this cannot be.    We can only stand as a beacon of warning to others.    We can see and feel what should be ;  the power to produce it has been thrown away, and, for our punishment, is not to be recovered.    But, how much so ever of our former Protestant life we may yet retain, we can clearly see that the Protestant life and the Catholic are of two distinct orders, and cannot and will not assimilate ; that what is agreeable to the one will be offensive to the other ; and thatihe man who makes up his mind to be a Catholic must make it up to be not a Protestant, and to take his stand in the Catholic world alone, for life and for death.

With these views of the present condition of the Catholic population in this country, of the influences to which we are necessarily exposed, the sort of literature we are able to produce, and of that which we need, or which alone could do us any good, we confess that any direct efforts to call forth a domestic literature, a popular literature, we mean, strike us as premature, and not at all desirable. When our colleges have got fairly into operation, and become colleges chiefly, if not exclusively, for Catholics, and have sent out one or two generations of scholars, trained from childhood under strict Catholic discipline, then we may do something; but till then, the most we can do to advantage will, be to guard ourselves and others against fatal tendencies, to set forth and defend our faith, and prepare the way for the complete triumph of the Church. Other nations will supply us with books, and better books than we can write for ourselves.

But we have forgotten the little book before us. It is, we have said, a reprint of a recent English work. When we had read only a few pages, we thought it must belong to the category of books we have been censuring, and be written by some Puseyite, who, through mistake, had got into the Church without stopping to dofF his Puseyism at the door; but as we read on, we became interested, and finally laid the book down with an impression much in its favor. In fact, though it reminded us, now and then, of Father Dominick's rhapsody in the London Tablet, on Littlemore, in which he exhorts the English Catholics to aspire to the sanctity of that heterodox establishment, or, at best, parody on a Catholic monastery, we were forced to like it, and we cheerfully commend it to our readers. It has one or two literary faults, common to most productions of the kind, such as efforts at fine writing, and wearisome descriptions of natural scenery and external objects, which are uncalled for, and only interrupt the narrative, and one or two opinions incidentally expressed, which are very questionable, and' which might have been left unexpressed ; yet it is one of the best little works, treating important matters in a popular manner, we have recently met. It is written with fair artistic skill, the characters are well sustained, and the controversy is managed with adroitness, delicacy, and success. The tone of the book is mild, gentle, but firm and uncompromising. The author writes without any fear of the English Establishment before his eyes. He does not allow it the merit even of being schismatic ; for he does not allow it any church character at all. It has no orders, no altar, no sacrifice, no sacraments, but that of baptism, which may be validly administered even by a pagan. It is an empty form, and has no worth, no vitality, no connection with the Church of God.    We like this; and, after Charles Butler and Dr. Lirjgard's History of England, it is refreshing, and proves that the spirit of good Bishop Milner is not all extinct. It is such language as this in the mouth of English Catholics that leads us in very deed to hope for England's conversion. English Catholics have been proverbially timid and compromising, and, in more instances than one, have shown that they preferred their king or their queen to their God. If they had had a little of the old uncompromising Catholic spirit of their Irish brethren, England would have been converted long ago, nay, would have never ceased to be Catholic. But, God be praised, a better spirit is beginning to manifest itself among them ; they are beginning to rise from the dust in which they have so long slumbered, to assume a bolder and a more truly Catholic tone, and there is clear evidence that Almighty God is visiting them in mercy. It does .one's heart good to hear them tell the Establishment to her face that she is no church, no reality, — that she is, as Carlyle would say, a mere sham ; for it is the truth, and the sooner the Anglicans are told it, and told it in tones that ring through their very souls, the better will it be for them, and for all who speak the English tongue. There is joy in heaven when our good old Anglo-Saxon is made once more the language of Christians, and lends its rough energy to give force to truth and holy religion. Shame is it that so noble a tongue should ever have been spoken by the enemies of God and his Church !

The work before us is controversial, but it confines itself to the few, yet all-important, points of difference between us and the Anglo-Catholics, as they call themselves. It treats these deluded individuals with great tenderness, handles them softly, as though it felt they were made of frail materials ; but, while recognizing frankly their Catholic tendencies, tells them plainly that they are less consistent than their Evangelical brethren, and place themselves in the most untenable of all conceivable positions. They are condemned by their own communion, while professing to love and obey it; they are condemned by the Church, because they refuse to enter her fold ; are, indeed, condemned by all parties, can find support nowhere, and must balance themselves on nothing. Yet they are to be compassionated, not upbraided. They really see that there should be, somewhere, a reality ; feel that sham will suffice neither for soul nor for body ; and regret, deeply regret, that their fathers cast away the reality for the sham. This is something, and with the stronger of them it is not without result, as the large number of converts from their ranks who have so gladdened our hearts fully proves. But, having inherited the sham from their fathers, although they see and admit it to be a sham, they fancy that by one means or another it may be made a reality. Alas ! their task is more hopeless than that which St. Anthony imposed upon his disciple, Paul.    Sooner shall one plant dry sticks, and, by watering, make them sprout and grow, than Anglicanism ever be made any thing but a miserable sham.

After all, we do not think the controversy with the Oxford party very important. Anglicanism itself is hardly worth opposing. Those of its members who awake to the importance of living a religious life soon discover that it is an empty form, and enter the Church or seek refuge with the Evangelicals. The real enemy, the only enemy in a religious guise, worth fighting, is Calvinism. It has, in some of its forms, a hold on the people, and sustains itself by the adhesive power of hatred. We should like to see our controversialists turning their attention more generally to this enemy of truth and justice, and attempting to rescue its followers from their fatal delusion. We know they are far gone ; we know they are bound in terrible thraldom by their ministers ; but we do not believe that they are wholly beyond the reach of truth. Calvinism demolished, Anglicanism is no more.
The author of the work before us, we have said, confines his controversy to the differences between us and the recent Oxford divines. He has the appearance of regarding the concessions made by these divines as concessions made by Protestants generally ; but we cannot so regard them. They abridge the controversy between Catholics and Protestants only in the case of those who make them. Protestants are not one body bound together by common principles, which all feel themselves alike under obligation to maintain. Each fights on his own hook, like the tall Yankee at the battle of Yorktown, and will acknowledge no concessions which he does not personally make. Tell him other Protestants have conceded the point, and he replies, " What then ? I have not conceded it; and you must defeat me personally before I yield you the victory." Protestants are a heterogeneous mass of individuals, without any common principles or bond of unity. The refutation of one amounts to little, so long as there remains one who has not been personally refuted. The refutation of Jonathan will not be taken as the refutation of Obadiah, though both adopt precisely the same views. There is not a point in Protestantism which- some eminent Protestant has not conceded, nor an article of the Church which some eminent Protestant has not defended ; and yet the controversy goes on as ever, and over the same ground. If we drive Protestants from one principle, they fly to another; and if we drive them from that, they return without shame to the first. Refutation does not silence them, —
"For even though vanquished they can argue still."

They are not fair and honorable opponents, and it were to bo generous at the expense of justice to treat them as such. They disdain all the ordinary rules of controversy, and to adopt them in our controversy with them would be like the European generals employing their science and tactics in a warfare with North American Indians. Their method oi' warfare is their own. It consists in making false charges, and in ignoring their refutation. They have no principles of their own at stake. They are not obliged to stop and inquire what principles their charges involve, and they are free to make charges which imply contradictory principles. If wo show them their charges refute one another, it is to no purpose ; they pay no attention to us, but go right on and reaffirm the same charges, as if nothing had been said. They know their charges are false, but by throwing them out they hope to create prejudice against us, and to screen themselves. Surely Catholics must be horrible creatures, or so much would not and could not be said against them; and by keeping Catholics employed in repelling these charges, they can keep them from exploring and exposing the weakness and wickedness of Protestantism. They can keep us on the defensive, and thus escape our attacks.

Now we do not think Catholics are bound to treat Protestantism with any indulgence, or to give it any advantage. It is, as all Catholics know, the enemy of God and men, the conlemner of God's Church and the reviler of his saints, and charity, even common humanity, forbids us to show it any favor. We have no right to stand merely on the defensive. We cannot consent to let our neighbour rush into the flames without making an effort to hold him back, merely because he does not try to drag us in with him. We are bound to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to be ready at any moment to die to save him. All who persist in adhering to Protestantism are out of the way of salvation, Can we see them destroy themselves without doing all in our power to save them ? These millions of obstinate Protestants are our brethren ; Christ died for them as well as for us ; they are our neighbours, — many of them our near and dear friends,—and must not their perilous state touch our hearts and compel us to do all in our power to overthrow this Protestantism which deludes them, and is leading them down to everlasting perdition ? We are bound, then, to attack Protestantism with all the ardor of Christian zeal, and with all the weapons to be found in the armory of the Gospel.

We have no occasion to stop to defend ourselves or our Church. She is immaculate, lives a divine life, is under divine protection, and has Almighty God for her defender. Whatever she teaches is the infallible word of God, and whatever discipline she approves must be pure, holy, and salutary. Neither her doctrines nor her discipline stand in any need of human defence. Let the world rage, she is proof against all the wrath of man and the malice of hell. The false charges against Catholics can do us no harm, unless we suttbr them to frighten us and induce us to stop and repel them. " Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, because great is your reward in heaven.' We may turn a deaf ear to all these revilings, or rather rejoice in them and be exceeding glad. They should pass us by as the idle wind, and never engage a moment of our time or attention. The enemy only seeks to divert us, by their means, from exposing his own weakness and wickedness. We must not suffer ourselves to be caught in his snare. We must leave the defensive to God and his saints, think not of ourselves, but of the precious souls Protestantism is destroying. We must attack the enemy's camp, and arraign Protestantism herself. She, not the Church, is in question ; she, not tho Church, must be put on the defensive. We must demand of her by what right she pretends to be a religion, by what right she assumes the name of Christ to take away her reproach, and by what right she dares to seduce souls from their allegiance to God, and peril their salvation. She must be made to stand forth and show cause why judgment shall not be executed against her. We must drag her from her covert, force her into the light, and compel her to stand and make her defence. Strip her of her disguises, tear off her meretricious ornaments, and show her to her deluded followers for what she is. What is she ? What has she ? What can sho give these millions of famishing souls, trying in vain to draw nourishment from her dry and withered breasts? Answer, thou who art no mother. O the cry, the shriek, of the souls thou hast damned ! We have thy answer; that we hear, and with that ringing in our ears and rending our hearts, we care not for thy revilings, thy calumnies ; we have but one thought, one wish, one firm resolve, which is to do what man may do with the help of God to save the precious souls for whom our God has died from thy delusions.

Protestantism has been treated too tenderly; she has been allowed advantages to which she had no claim, and the world suffers from the indulgence. Protestants are dear to us; we love them as we do ourselves, and we cannot, in common humanity to them, forbear to do all we can to deliver them from the destroyer. We cannot stop to ward off attacks. Our duty calls us to act on the offensive, to expose the sorceress, to show what it is that has bewitched our brethren and holds them spellbound. Protestantism is strong only when she is suffered to attack and keep Catholics on their defence. Attacked herself, she is as tow at the of fire. What we ask of our controversialists is that they carry the war into her camp, and employ against her every spiritual weapon Almighty God has furnished us. Heed not her clamors, heed not her revilings, heed not her calumnies, — (hey are harmless, — but press home upon her with the sword of truth, and her days are soon over, and the places which have known her shall know her no more for ever.