by G.K. Chesterton

To a Roman Catholic the Roman Catholic Church is
simply the Christian religion; the gift of
Christ to St. Peter and his successors of a right
to answer at all times all questions about what it
really is; a thing surrounded at the edge of its
own wide domain by various severed fragments of
its own substance; consisting of people who for
different reasons deny that right to affirm what it
really is, and who therefore differ among themselves,
indefinitely and increasingly, about what it
really is. It may be added that they differ not only
about the nature of the ideal Christianity that
ought to be substituted, but even about the nature of
the Roman Catholicism that is to be defied.
To some it is Antichrist; to some it is one branch of
the Church of Christ, having authority in certain provinces
but not in England or Russia; to some it is a corrupt perversion
of Truth from which religion was rescued; to others a
necessary historic phase through which religion had to
pass; and so on. But it may be noted by the curious that
though there is so much difference in the reasons given,
there is something common to most of the emotions felt.
The reactions to Rome are all reactions to something odd.
It is a thousand things, but all things with a sort of thrill in
them; a mystery, a bete noire, a strange survival, a
public scandal, a private embarrassment, an open secret, a
tactless topic, a sly joke, a last refuge or a leap in the
dark everything except anything that is like anything else.

To a Roman Catholic there is no particular difference between
those parts of the religion which Protestants and others accept
and those parts which they reject. The dogmas have, of course,
their intrinsic theological proportions; but in his feeling
they are all one thing. The Mass is as Christian as the Gospel.
The Gospel is as Catholic as the Mass. This, I fancy, is the
fact which the Protestant world has found it most difficult to
understand and about which some of the most unfortunate forms of
ill-feeling have appeared. Yet it arises quite naturally from the actual
history of the Church, which has had to contend incessantly with
quite other and quite opposite heresies. She has not only had to
defeat these sects to defend these doctrines, but to defeat other
sects to defend other doctrines including the doctrines which
these sects rightly hold so dear. It was only the Roman Catholic
Church that saved the Protestant truths. It may be right to rest on
the Bible, but there would be no Bible if the Gnostics had proved
that the Old Testament was written by the Devil, or had littered
the world with Apocryphal Gospels. It may be right to say
that Jesus alone saves from sin, but nobody would be saying
it if a Pelagian movement had altered the whole notion of sin.
Even the very selection of dogmas which the reformers decided
to preserve had only been preserved for them by the authority
which they denied.

It is natural, therefore, for Catholics not to be always thinking
of the antithesis of Catholic and Protestant any more than
of Catholic and Pelagian. Catholicism is used to proposals to cut down
the creed to a few clauses; but different people have wanted
quite different clauses left and quite different clauses cut out.
Thus a Catholic does not feel the special reverence paid to the Mother
of God as any more of a controversial question than the divine
honours paid to the Son of God; for he knows the latter was as
much controverted by the Arians as the former by the Puritans. He
does not feel the throne of St. Peter to be any more specially in
dispute than the theology of St. Paul, for he knows that both have
been disputed. There have been anti-popes; there have been
Apocryphal Gospels; there have been sects dethroning our Lady and
sects dethroning our Lord. After nearly two thousand years of this
sort of thing, Catholics have come to regard Catholicism
as one thing, all the parts of which are in one sense equally
assailed and in another sense equally

Now it is unfortunately impossible for a Roman Catholic to state
the principle without its sounding provocative and, what is much
worse, superior; but unless he does state it, he does not
state Roman Catholicism. Having stated it, however, in its
dogmatic and defiant form, as it is his duty to do, he may
afterwards suggest something of why the system seems, to those
inside it, to be not so much a system as a home, and even a
holiday. Thus it certainly does not mean being superior in the
sense of supercilious; for in this system alone, only the saint
is superior because he feels he is inferior. It does not say that
all heretics are lost, for it does say that there is a common
conscience by which they may be saved. But it does definitely say
that he who knows the whole truth sins in accepting half the truth.
Thus the Church is not a movement, like all those which have filled
the world since the sixteenth century; that is, since the breakdown of the
collective attempt of all Christendom to state the whole truth.
It is not the movement of something trying to find its balance;
it is the balance. But the point here is that even those
heretics, who snatched at half-truths, seldom snatched at the
same half. The original Protestants insisted on Hell without
Purgatory. Their modern successors generally insist on Purgatory
without Hell. Their future successors may quite possibly insist
on Purgatory without Heaven. It may seem a natural sequence to
the worship of Progress for its own sake, and the theory that "to
travel hopefully is better than to arrive." For the Catholic each
of these things may be disputed in its turn, and all will remain.

Nevertheless, in making so short a summary in a world still
Protestant by tradition, it will be convenient to assume that the
reader is acquainted with the Christian scheme in those features
which, until lately, were common to many or most Christian bodies:
the Image of God, the Fall, the necessity of Redemption, the Last
Judgment, and the rest; and to describe the Catholic faith
(from which all these things really come) as that world sees it, by
the chief features that appear distinctive because they are disputed.
I will therefore say a word or two of what would still be
commonly called the marks of Roman Catholicism. I shall say very
little about the greatest of all, because it is admittedly a
mystery and an object of faith. Catholics believe that in the
Blessed Sacrament Christ is present, not merely as a thought is
present in a mind, but as a person is present in a room, veiled
only from the actual senses by the appearances of bread and wine. Of
its historical aspect it will be enough to say that Roman Catholics
are convinced that it is spoken of in this spirit at least as early
as St. Ignatius, who was roughly of the next generation to that of
the Gospel. The common sense of it, it seems to me, would be to say
that if the words of Christ at the Last Supper were misunderstood,
they were misunderstood by the twelve Apostles. But the doctrine is
so tremendous and transcendental that we cannot complain if some misunderstand
it as blasphemous and extravagant. Only they cannot have it both ways.
They must not turn round and complain that we claim to possess Christ
as a living God by a vital process, absent from the other communions that
called the process impossible. They must not grumble at our talking of
Christ coming back to a heretic land with the first procession bearing
the Host. There must be a difference between Christ's presence in
their sense and in our sense, if they are actually shocked and staggered
at our sense. A Return which they are driven to call impossible
we may surely be allowed to call unique.

For practical purposes in Protestant civilization it is another fact
that soars most clearly into sight, towering even over Transubstantiation.
It is the Papacy that makes the Papist. For him, at least, it dates
from the highly dramatic words about the Rock and the Gates of Hell; it certainly
appears, to say the very least, as an admitted seat of superior
authority in the debates of the first Fathers and Councils; but it was not
logically and literally defined until the middle of the nineteenth century.
In this sense it is true that the idea grew; but we can never make anything but
nonsense out of the sort of evolution that imagines something growing out
of nothing. But in so far as an eternal truth can grow, in the comprehension
of men, it has grown continuously with the increase of the experience of
men. The general case for a tribunal to define the truth has been
touched upon already. I pointed out that long before Protestants rushed
in to preserve their simple Christianity, even that simple Christianity
would not have been there to preserve if there had not already been a Church
tribunal to preserve it. The question then becomes one of the nature of the
tribunal. Even if democracy were applicable to a revelation, there could not really
be a democratic tribunal which should be deciding all the time and democratic
all the time. It would not be the millions of poor and humble Catholics
who would rule; it would be the officials if it were not the official.
It would be a Holy Synod. Now every popular instinct Catholics
possess seems to them to say that rather than have merely an official
order that is, an oligarchy it is far more human to have a monarchy that
is, a man. It is indeed remarkable that those who broke with this purely
moral monarchy generally set up a material and a rather immoral monarchy.
The first great schism in the East was made by men who turned from the Popes to
bow down to the Caesars and the Tsars. The last great schism in the
West was made by men who attributed divine right to Henry VIII, not to
mention Charles I. Those who though the papacy too despotic did not even
escape despotism.

It is needless to explain, I trust, that the only despotism of the Pope
consists in the fact that all Catholics believe that God will guard him
from teaching falsehood to the Church on those special and rather rare
occasions when he is appealed to to end a controversy with a final
statement of faith. His ordinary pronouncements, though naturally received
with profound respect, are not infallible. His private character depends
on his own free will, like anybody else's. He can commit sins like
anybody else; he must confess sins like anybody else; and his having
been Pope is nothing to his salvation. But the question is, given our
need for such final decision to save Christianity at great crises, what
organ of the Church decides? The longer historical experience accumulates,
the more profoundly thankful most Catholics are that the organ is a human
being; a mind and not a type, a will and not a tradition or tone of a
class. The best bishops ruling as a class would become a club, as a
parliament does. They would have all of its scattered responsibility,
all its mutual flattery, all its diffused and dangerous pride. But the
responsibility of a Pope is so solitary and so solemn that a man would
need to be a maniac not to be humbled by it.

Probably the Protestant world would count as the next outstanding
feature, after the power of the priests to perform Mass and of the
Popes to define doctrine, that other power of the priesthood
which is expressed in the sacrament of Penance. The sacramental
system is everywhere based on the idea that certain material acts
are mystical acts; are events in the spiritual world. This
mystical materialism does divide us from all those forms of idealism
that hold all good to be inward and invisible and matter to be
unworthy to express it. It is needless to note how this
applies to the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and so on.
But I am deliberately taking the sacrament which our world has most
misunderstood; and, strangely enough, it is that one which
is least material and most spiritual, consisting of spoken words
expressing the most secret thoughts. Of all the sacraments it is,
in the modern jargon, the most psychological. And the
proof of it is that even the people who abolished it a few centuries
ago found that they had to invent a new imitation of it a few years
ago. They told the people to go to a new priest, often
without credentials, and make confession generally without absolution,
and they called it psychoanalysis. Catholicism would say that
the lack of the confessional had produced a modern congestion and
stagnation of secrets so morbid as to be reaching the verge of madness.

Broadly, it may be said that Roman Catholicism has had the idea,
hitherto at least highly unique, of working mankind from the inside.
There have been and are any number of external ethical and political
systems directing men how to do right in the mass; there is no other
that thus gets to grips with why such a system goes wrong with the
individual. Most moderns are content to get hold of the plan of
Utopia. This is rather like getting hold of the diary of the Utopian and
learning the real reason why he does not always behave in a Utopian
manner. But, of course, it is quite useless unless he produces his
own diary of his own free will. Unless he really wishes it,
there can be no sacrament; and unless he really repents, there is
no absolution. For the history of this institution, it follows in
its rough outline the same course as the other cases of the Mass and
the Papacy. That is, it is undoubtedly present as an idea in the
very earliest times; there are disputes about the proportion of that
presence, and there need be no dispute at all that it grew
more elaborate, more systematic, and more subtle with the process
of experience. What is called Development is the unfolding of all
the consequences and applications of an idea; but of something that
is there, not of something that is not there. In this sense the
Catholic Church is the one Christian body that has always believed
in Evolution.

There is barely space to touch on two more of these things which are
counted Popish specialties chiefly because they are counted Popish
scandals. The first is the idea of asceticism and especially of celibacy.
The second is the cult of the Blessed Virgin. Of the former it will be
enough to say here that to most ordinary Roman Catholics, who are not
called upon to practise special austerities, those examples are
valuable not only as examples of heroism, but as very vivid evidences
of the reality of religious hopes. Granted that for us the divine
light is valued as a daily light, brightening our daily and normal
affairs, yet it would not brighten them at all if we did not believe
that the light was really divine. If we only believed that religion
was useful, it would be of no use. Now nothing could better prove
the light divine than that some should live on it as on a food; nothing
could more clearly show religion to be real than that for some people
it can be a substitute for other realities. We have no difficulty in
believing that such people deal more directly with divine things than
we, as in the case of those who enjoy directly a divine love
instead of indirectly through a human love in marriage. And when we
are criticized for this, we remember with some amusement that it was
we who said that marriage was a divine sacrament when our critics
said it was not.

Of the most popular, the most poetical and the most practically
inspiring of all the distinctively Catholic traditions of Christianity,
I will say verylittle here; indeed, I will say only one thing. The
honour given to Mary as the Mother of God is, among a thousand other
things, a very perfect example of the truth to which I have recurred more
than once: that even what we may call the Protestant truths were only
saved by the Catholic authority. Among these is the very necessary
truth of the subordination of Mary to Christ, as being after all the
subordination of the creature to the Creator. Nothing amuses Catholics
more than the suggestion, in so much of the old Protestant propaganda,
that they are to be freed from the superstition called Mariolatry,
like people freed from the burden of daylight. All the spontaneous
spirituality, as distinct from the necessary doctrinal orthodoxy,
is on the side of the extension and even excess of this cult. If
Catholics had been left to their private judgment, to their personal
religious experience, to their sense of the essential spirit of Christ
and Christianity, to any of the liberal or latitudinarian tests of
truth, they would long ago have exalted our Lady to a height of
superhuman supremacy and splendour that might really have imperilled the pure
monotheism in the core of the creed. Over whole tracts of popular
opinion she might have been a goddess more universal than Isis. It
is the authority of Rome that has prevented such Catholics from indulging
in such Mariolatry; the strict definition that distinguished between a perfect
woman and a divine Man. But if it were a place for expression of feeling,
little doubt would be left about which way all our most direct and
democratic feelings drive. I have throughout this statement ignored the
meaningless affectation of impartiality. It is impossible for any man to
state what he believes as if he did not believe it. But I have endeavoured
to describe the most familiar features of this one religion in terms of
logic not of rhetoric. And on this last matter of the doctrine touching
the Virgin I will conclude without further speech. It is only reasonable that
a creed presented by one who holds it should be stated with conviction;
but anything I wrote on this last topic might be defaced with enthusiasm.

[From An Outline of Christianity (London, 1926). Reprinted in G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic
Church and Conversion (1960). E-text created 1998 by Douglas C. Anderson. Adobe Acrobat
version available at