An Atheist Who Tells Us Something Important About the Catholic Church

COMMENTARY: Even in his error, H.L. Mencken provides real insight.

H. L. Mencken poses for a photograph in ‘Theatre Magazine’ in August 1928.
H. L. Mencken poses for a photograph in ‘Theatre Magazine’ in August 1928. (photo: Ben Pinchot / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The famous journalist H.L. Mencken was convinced that Christianity was full of “imbecilities.” He believed that no intelligent person could believe a word of it, any more than an educated person could believe in a flat Earth. But he did have a higher view of the Catholic Church than of Protestantism, not because he thought it truer, but because he thought it more poetically wrong.

He was wrong, but not entirely wrong. He was one of the most influential writers and editors in America from the 1920s to the early ’40s, for a reason, and we can learn something from him. In his error lay a real insight.


Mystery and Poetry

In 1923, Mencken wrote an essay called “Holy Writ,” reviewing a new translation of the Bible. It appeared in Smart Set, of which he was an editor. The clearer the Bible’s language, he thought, the less plausible the message.

The archaic and beautiful language of the King James version hid how ridiculous the whole thing is. The “imbecility” of Christianity’s doctrines, he wrote, “is concealed by the extremely elevated and beautiful dialect in which they are set forth, but in the speech of everyday it is only too plain.”

Mencken pushes the claim at length, mostly by assertion rather than argument. He’s not convincing if you don’t already agree with him that the whole thing’s stupid. But at the end, he does say something useful about what he calls “the Latin Church.”


The Mysterious and Poetic Latin Church

“The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its occasional astounding imbecilities,” he writes, “has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem.”

The Catholic Church kept Christianity’s poetry and added to it, with its devotion to Mary and the saints and the Mass. “A solemn high mass is a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.”

Mencken thought Catholics should drop the homily entirely or just say a few sentences. Unfortunately, Catholic priests “have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope.”

It gets worse, from Mencken’s point of view: “This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable police sergeant in South Bend, Ind.”

He concludes with a line that has more of a sting in it now than it had when he wrote it: “Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”


Learning From Mencken

What do we learn from this hostile description of Christianity and the Catholic Church? Or maybe I should say, what are we reminded of? 

I think Mencken’s observations teach the lesson that clerics ought not to talk when they don’t thoroughly know what they’re talking about, and that the range of subjects they thoroughly understand is almost certainly smaller than they think it is. Public people who have to produce a lot of words (and this includes journalists like myself) tend to judge how much they know by what they have to say, and that’s a mistake. 

The day’s culture war issues are among the easiest things to get wrong, and it’s too easy to sound wrong even when you’re right. When you study it, almost every subject proves more complicated than you thought, and every declaration you think you can make invites a “Yes, but” or a “Well, sort of” or even a “No” response from people who do understand it.

Along the same lines, we learn that unless a cleric can preach well, and knows that from objective sources, he ought to preach simple, short sermons. He should say what he can say with certainty and then stop. He will probably preach more powerfully that way, and his people will be glad not to have to sit still so long. A liturgical win-win.


Catholicism Then and Now

But Mencken’s observation offers a more important lesson. American Catholicism doesn’t do some things as well in 2023 as it (we) did in 1923. We don’t do as well in making the Mystery mysterious. He would not have written that essay today. He wouldn’t have distinguished the Catholics from the Protestants.

Mencken must have thought he was patronizing the Church, by claiming that she’s smarter in the way she presents all that nonsense than the Protestants are. He gave the Church the unintended compliment that she knows what she has and how to give it to the world. That was then. Not so much now.

I don’t mean only liturgical styles and rites, and the casual way we sometimes respond, priests and laity both, to Jesus in the Mass and in the tabernacle. We could all, as a whole, show more reverence. We could better live out the poetry.

The loss of reverence and disregard for the Mystery includes the things the Church in America has done to domesticate the Catholic life, to make it fit our lives more comfortably. 

Mystery imposes itself. It is not ours to arrange. Dropping holy days of obligation if they fall on a Saturday or Monday, for example, or just moving them to Sunday, even when the holy day celebrates an event that fell on Thursday.

From the way Mencken praised Catholicism, we learn, or are reminded, that our religion is, to borrow his term, a poetic one and that we must be careful that in our attempts to teach more clearly, we don’t lose the poetry. We learn that poetry — or mystery — draws and holds people in a way that formal statements of doctrine don’t. 

We do better by inviting people into a mystery than by trying to argue them into a conclusion or by presenting the Faith as a practical way to improve their lives. If I can put it this way, the Mass in which we meet the Lord of the universe ought to be our religion’s sales pitch. “Such overwhelming beauty” is the best way to say “God is here.”