‘Of’ the World and ‘In’ It: When Politics Clouds Our Catholic Faith

COMMENTARY: Dominican Father Bede Jarrett’s 1922 essay rings especially true today.

Dominican Father Bede Jarrett
Dominican Father Bede Jarrett (photo: National Catholic Register / English Province of the Order of Preachers)

Catholics felt greater devotion to the sacraments than at maybe any time in history, but they were not nearly so good at living in the world, wrote the English Dominican priest and theologian Bede Jarrett 100 years ago. Catholics pursued the priestly calling with energy, but not the prophetic, and thus did not reach or move secular England. That would probably have been true of American Catholics then. And probably now.

Father Jarrett spoke of a particular kind of worldliness that afflicts us in our public life. In 1922, he published an essay in Blackfriars, “The Voice of the Church in Modern Problems”, an essay he could, alas, write today. “Have we not all of us, priest or layman,” he asked, “to confess that we have far too often allowed prejudice to blind us? that we have followed our party and not the teaching of Christ? followed and not led?”

Father Jarrett is yet another great Catholic figure now sadly unknown, outside of the Dominicans and people who read odd things. An Englishman from a comfortable military family, he entered the Dominicans and then a few years later was the first member of his order since the Reformation to study at Oxford. He became prior of his priory at the early age of 33 and then two years later was made the English provincial. He also instructed the novelist Graham Greene’s wife Vivien before she entered the Church.

Though he died in 1934 at only 53, he wrote a lot, like many of the Dominicans of his day. His subjects ranged from the Holy Spirit to medieval social thought — his Social Theories in the Middle Ages and Medieval Socialism are classics of their sort — to the history of Europe to Our Lady of Lourdes. 

He also saved from closing the English Dominican journal Blackfriars, a treasury of good writing for the next few decades, and created the first Catholic college in Oxford since the Reformation. You can find the journal and many of his books on Internet Archive.


Our Particular Worldliness

Catholics, he wrote, failed to speak and live as prophets. The prophet, he says, doesn’t so much foretell the future as denounce evil and point to the good. He calls that “forthtelling.” Jesus did tell us something about the future, but he mainly preached the coming of the Kingdom. He set out “the spirit in which life was to be met, the security born of the sense of God’s protecting fatherhood.” The Church after him was to act that way.

Father Jarrett goes on, not quite to name names, but to point fingers at groups. He starts with Catholic politicians. He says they’re just as quick as any other politicians to criticize the other side, but won’t criticize their own side. They speak as political partisans, rather than as Catholics. If asked, he would say, I think, that they should act in political life with only a provisional and limited loyalty to a party they support because they believe its positions closest to the Catholic positions. They should not treat the party as part of their identity, as people tend to do, but as an organization they support for specific and limited ends.

“What,” he asks, “is the use of our talking about the Catholic Church as containing in her teaching the cure of the world’s ills if in the moment of need individual Catholics do nothing to enlighten, modify, or inspire the schemes of their group or party?” He wrote about the British Parliament then, but he could be speaking about the American Congress and state legislatures today.

He suggests that Catholic businessmen and workers were also not living out their faith, pointing to the Catholic response to strikes and lockouts. By that he means — I’m pretty sure from other writings — the owners refusing to negotiate and Catholics automatically supporting them. 

Then he points to Catholics in public or secular journalism. (Speaking to the world I know as an editor of a city newspaper.) He thinks Catholic journalists as bad as Catholic politicians and businessmen.

They seem “no less uncharitable, their statements as unprovable, their criticism as ill-natured as that of anyone else.” He points out that in writing about the war with Germany, which had ended fewer than four years before he wrote, “we Catholics were all as blood-thirsty as the rest of the civil population, and made the killing of the Germans the prime object of our inspiring addresses.” 

The Catholic journalist should not expound the Catholic faith when doing his job. He’s taken the job of reporting on crimes or business deals or political campaigns, and that’s a good and necessary work in itself. But he can do more to advance “those common ideals that all men and parties do in their hearts acclaim,” ideals that party politics obscures. And he can make sure his paper avoids the bias against Catholicism that he saw shaping some newspapers’ coverage of the issues.


Too Much Like Everyone Else

 “We Catholics are too much like everybody else” Father Jarrett writes, and he could be writing about us today. Some Catholics do stand out, but you only have to read through social media to see how most Republican and Democrat Catholics speak about public issues the way their party does. If you did not know they were Catholic, you would not know it from their writing. You will not see them criticizing their party. That seems to have been his test for genuine political independence.

And that’s a great problem for the Church’s public witness. We cannot “wait for other people to move, or to wait for England to become Catholic before attempting to set society upon its true basis; if our faith be divine, our teachings real and true, we must be the first ourselves to begin and now at once to make all our policies conform to the Gospel teaching.”

He closes the essay with a haunting story. He’d been speaking in a London park for the Catholic Evidence Guild and as he left walked by a group of working men who had questioned him. He heard one say, “Their theories are all right, but it is only a theory. For the rest they are no different from any of us.”

“What good can talking do,” Father Jarrett writes, “so long as we journalists or politicians, employers or employed, priests or parents, simply copy the prejudices or follow the passions, of the class or group to which we belong, or, at least, are too timid to oppose them?”

Catholics must be in the world, the public world of politics, business and journalism in particular, but not of it. We must speak for the good and against evil more fearlessly than others, especially in criticizing our own party or side. In doing that, we will show our party “the truest and noblest loyalty.” (Not that the people who run the party will see it that way.)

At the end of the essay, Father Jarrett presses his concern that Catholics live as Catholics and not as partisans for worldly causes. If we want to change the public world, we first have to live out our beliefs better than we do. If “we endeavoured to make plain the ideals of the faith by speech and action, we should, perhaps, succeed the more quickly in our work of converting the country and of holding our own body to the Church.”