A vague feeling which could be termed a sense of the infinite activates and torments mankind. Man feels dormant forces lying inside him, and thinks he can detect the presence of amorphous foes and unknown helpers. Many times he needs to believe in the absurd and attempt the impossible. Perhaps he feels low and discouraged, baffled at every turn, and longing to twist his despair into the shape of some new hope. He has been deceived in love, his friends have deserted him, and reason is not enough to meet his case. A philosopher would depress him; a magician would scare him; so at this juncture he betakes himself to a priest!
The priest is the tamer of imaginary hippogryphs and monsters hatched by fantasy. He draws a force from our weaknesses and constructs a reality out of our chimeras: he is the homoeopathic doctor for human folly. Besides, is he not something more than a mere man? Is not his mission a legitimate one, nobly descended from Calvary or Sinai? I am referring to the Catholic priest now, and as a matter of fact he is the only one that exists. The Jews have their rabbis, the Moslems their imams, the Hindus their brahmins, the Chinese their bonzes, and the Protestants their ministers. Only the Catholics have priests, because only they have the altar and the sacrifice, that is to say, the sum total of religion.
To perform high magic is to set oneself up as a rival to the Catholic priesthood; to be a non-conformist priest in fact. Rome is the grand Thebes of the new initiation. In former times she raked up the bones of her martyrs to fight against the gods evoked by Julian. Her catacombs are her crypts, her rosaries and medals are her talismans, her congregations are her magic chains, her magnetic sources are her convents, her centres of attraction are her confessionals. As means of expansion she has her sees, her printing presses and the pastoral letters of her bishops. Finally, she has her pope, the 'god-man' made visible and permanent on earth; her pope, who may be a fool as nearly all fanatics are, more or less, or a scoundrel like Alexander VI, who for all that will be the governor of spirits, the arbiter of conscience, and the legitimate bestower of indulgences and pardons throughout the Christian world.
That is ridiculous, you will say! - Yes, it borders on the ridiculous because of its magnitude! It borders on the ridiculous because it goes beyond the sublime! What comparable power has ever appeared on this earth; and if it did not exist, who would ever dare to invent it? What is the origin of this prodigy which seems to achieve the impossible? - It comes from the concentration of vagrant forces, from giving a direction to vague instincts, from the conventional creation of the absolute in the spheres of hope and faith!
Go on, yell at the monster, you philosophers of the eighteenth century! The monster is stronger than you are and will vanquish you. Go on, say you must crush the shameful thing, you disciples of Voltaire! But what shameful thing are you talking about? Is it the inspiring infamy of Vincent de Paul and Fénelon, the infamy which suggests so many sacrifices to the noble sisters of charity, so much devotion to the poor and chaste missionaries? A shameful thing is it, which has founded so many charitable institutions, so many refuges for the penitent, so many retreats for the innocent? If that is infamy, and if your slanders and insults are held in honour, then I embrace the pillory with all my heart and trample on your honour!
However, this was not what you were trying to say, and I will not calumniate you in my turn. Soul of Voltaire, you whom I willingly call a saintly soul, for you preferred truth and justice above all else - to you good sense was God and folly was the Devil. You only saw an ass at the cradle of Bethlehem. You saw the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and you made fun of the ass's ears. This must have angered Fréron. Ah, if only you had lived to meet Veuillot! But we must be serious, for these are serious matters.
The Genius of Christianity* has made its reply to the sarcasms of Voltaire, or rather Chateaubriand has completed Voltaire, for these two great men stand equally outside the Catholicism of the priests.
The ass's ears are going to be indispensable as long as there are asses in the world; and asses there will be, for nature, the daughter of God, has placed them there.
It was the will of Jesus Christ to have an ass as His mount, and this is why the Holy Father rides on a mule. Even his slipper is called a mule; to indicate, perhaps, that a good pope should be stubborn to the very nails on his toes. Non possumus, replied our Holy Father, Pope Pius X, when he was asked for concessions and reforms. The pope never says possumus, 'We are able', since this is the great arcanum of the priesthood; all the priests are well aware of it, but it is truest of all when they refrain from saying it.
The power which is founded on the mysteries must be a mysterious power, otherwise it would no longer exist.
I believe that this man can do something which I am unable to define because of something else which I do not understand any more than he does. Thus I am obliged to obey him, because I should be unable to say why I should not obey him, not being able to deny the existence of what I do not know, the existence, moreover, which he affirms with quite as much reason. I feel it is irrational and am happy about it, because he tells me repeatedly that reason is not to be trusted. I simply find that this gives me a sense of comfort, and that I am tranquillized by this mode of thought.
- Charbonnier, you are right.
Abortive or disappointing love affairs, frustrated ambitions, impotent fits of anger, embittered resentments, pride which goes before a fall, a laziness of mind which tires of doubt, the leap of ignorance into the unknown especially when it is marvellous, vague fears of death, the pangs of a bad conscience, the need for a repose which constantly evades us, the sombre and grandiose dreams of artists, dread visions of eternity: these are the forces which religion gathers together and of which she forms the most invincible and most formidable passion of all - devotion.
This passion is unbridled, for nothing can restrain or limit it. It glories in its excesses, and believes that it has taken the first step into Eternity. It absorbs all the sentiments of a man, and renders him insensible to all else; and pushes its zeal for propaganda to the most murderous extremes of despotism and the most implacable fury. Saint Dominic and Saint Pius V are acknowledged as such by the whole Church, and cannot be disowned by a devout and faithful Catholic.
One can understand how devotion may become a powerful lever in the hand of an authority which declares that it is infallible. 'Give me a place to stand outside the world', declared Archimedes, 'and I will move the earth.' The priests have found such a place where they can exert their pressure, beyond the pale of personal reason, and they have displaced the reason of mankind.
'Seeing that men have not attained the knowledge of God by knowledge and by reason, it has pleased us' said the Prince of Apostles, 'to save the believers by the foolishness of the faith!'
What have you to answer to this, those of you who are adversaries of the Church? Saint Paul speaks perfectly plainly here, without trying to deceive anybody.
The religious force of the dogma is in this obscurity which makes its absurdity apparent. Once a dogma has been explained, it is no longer a dogma, but a theorem in philosophy, or at least a postulate. People are always wanting to confuse religion with philosophy, and fail to understand that their separation and distinctiveness, I shall not say their antagonism, are absolutely essential to the equilibrium of reason.
Astronomers think that comets follow paths which are only relatively aberrant as far as our own system is concerned, and that they take a regular course from one system to another by describing an ellipse of which the foci are two suns.
It is the same for man's aberrant forces. A single light is insufficient for him, and to balance his progress, he needs two centres and two foci: the one is reason, and the other is faith.
* Le Génie du Chritianisme, written by Chateaubriand in 1802