Thanks to our youngest child’s interest in seeing the film version of The Lord of the Rings—and, yes, she has read the original books—I recently found myself re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece for the first time in years. Coincidentally finishing reading LOTR in the midst of the crisis and confusion surrounding the Catholic Church is an added bonus, for it is a story about finding hope and success in dark times. All seemed lost for those countering the evil of Sauron, and the largest task was entrusted to the lowliest person. It’s also a story about mercy shown to those who neither deserved nor appreciated it.
At the same time I was plowing through the last pages of Return of the King, a letter Tolkien wrote to his son Michael was being shared in social media, related to the current mess. The letter was written in November 1963, and while there is no mention of what in particular drew Tolkien’s son to unhappiness about Catholicism, it is very possible that, at that particular point in time, the Tolkiens were frustrated with the direction the Second Vatican Council was leading the Catholic Church. To be sure, the Council was definitely in the news in those days and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose eldest child John was a priest, would be paying attention. His unhappiness with the changes is well-known. However, there also is the recognition of something other than the changes the Council would visit on their lives; there is a mention of scandal of a more personal nature.
“Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge),” Tolkien wrote in a effort to bolster his 43-year-old son’s faith.
Tolkien observes that the temptation to unbelief can be strong, and there are times when people are looking for any reason to walk away from the burden of Catholicism, making them especially prone to scandal. Certainly, he noted, some in the Church often provide us good reasons to reconsider our allegiance. “I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church,” Tolkien adds. “We should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, … not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.”
When British writers, artists and others petitioned for the Latin Mass in 1971, in what’s come to be known as the “Agatha Christie Indult,” Tolkien was not a signer. In advanced age, with his beloved wife passing away that year and himself soon to join her, he may have never gotten the opportunity to consider, although he probably would have signed it were he able. “Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time,” he wrote in another letter to Michael, sent between 1967 and 1968. “I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”
It is that sense of loyalty that Tolkien built up as a virtue fighting the grim and bloody battles of World War I that fueled the fellowship of hobbit, man, elf, dwarf and wizard of The Lord of the Rings, a fellowship that had dark moments of despair and that even witnessed betrayal—not just the passing temptation of Boromir (and Frodo at the end, once he reached Mount Doom), but the great scandal of Saruman, the white wizard, whom Gandalf had loved.
Now, in 2018, the priestly sex abuse scandal has resurfaced and is being felt at the top in ways it has not before. Many Catholics are boycotting the collection basket with their checkbooks; bishops and archbishops are attacking their brothers; prominent laity are walking away or considering it. It sometimes can be hard to separate the Church they love from those who run it and ruin it recklessly. And yet, we cannot forget what Tolkien noted is his letter about temptation to unbelief and the role of scandal: “Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others.”
Another British writer perhaps said it best, Hilaire Belloc: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” To be sure, there is something far worse that “knavish imbecility” taking place here.
Recognizing our plight in Tolkien’s correspondence is one thing; the story he provides about the end of an age in Middle Earth is another. As the tale reaches its climax, Frodo and faithful Sam enter Mordor on their own, led by the faithless Gollum; all their real allies are rallying troops and fighting battles. In the end, these allies assume all is lost, and move forward to sacrifice themselves to distract for the Eye of Sauron as Frodo and Sam near Mount Doom. They gave up hope for themselves, but recognized the greater mission, the destruction of the Ring.
Today it seems we are being chased by orcs in the foothills of Mordor and the dark fog is rolling in. Above us, the evil Nazgul fly, seeking whom they may devour. And perhaps the solution will come in the hands of the laity, who like the hobbits of the Shire are the smallest and appear to be the least powerful. As Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell put it, “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?”
As The Lord of the Rings draws to an end, with the Ring destroyed and light restored to the darkness like Christmas in Narnia, the adventurous and victorious hobbits return home, where they quickly learn their beloved Shire they left behind to save Middle Earth was itself in need of a “scouring,” as the chapter title puts it. It was in this scouring that the once good and great wizard Saruman finally met his comeuppance and his end, and a scouring is precisely what the Catholic Church needs at this point.