Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Crux Ansata (1943)

English anti-Catholicism has deep roots, and a tangled history. So far as Wells was concerned, as he older, this strain of prejudice came more prominently to the surface (as is often the way with people getting older) and in this book it bursts out with startling intensity. Anti-Catholicism is there in some of his earlier writing, not least in Outline of History—that book provoked outraged reactions by Hilaire Belloc and other prominent Catholics. But this late volume, though only 96 pages long, is the most sustained and poisonous expression of Wells's prejudices. I speak neither as a Catholic nor a Christian, but it's an uncomfortable read. The title's Latin means ‘cross with handles’, which is to say ‘crooked cross’ (which is to say ‘swastika’), and the moral equivalence between Catholicism and Nazism is the keynote here.

You get a sense of the tenor with the opening chapter: ‘why do we not bomb Rome?’
On June 1st, 1942, the enemy bombed Canterbury and as near as possible got the Archbishop of Canterbury. But what is a mere Protestant Archbishop against His Holiness the Pope?

In March 1943 Rome was still unbombed.

Now consider the following facts.

We are at war with the Kingdom of Italy, which made a particularly cruel and stupid attack upon our allies Greece and France; which is the homeland of Fascism; and whose ‘Duce’ Mussolini begged particularly for the privilege of assisting in the bombing of London.

There are also Italian troops fighting against our allies the Russians. A thorough bombing (a la Berlin) of the Italian capital seems not simply desirable, but necessary. [Crux, 1]
I have to say: I've visited Rome, as millions of tourists do annually, and I have to say I am, on balance, glad it wasn't flattened by the RAF in 1943 and rebuilt in concrete as Slough-su-Tevere. But Wells wants blood.

Most of the book is Wells's potted history of the Church. He notes that the Council of Nicea as a stormy meeting (‘when old Arius rose to speak, one, Nicholas of Myra, struck him in the face’ [2]) as if this refutes the entire Nicean creed—presumably had Huxley slapped Darwin on the schnoz Wells would have presented this fact as invalidating Evolution. He claims that the church was distracted by the establishment of the City of God on Earth by internal schism and an obsession with heresy:
By the thirteenth century the Church had become morbidly anxious about the gnawing doubts that might presently lay the whole structure of its pretensions in ruins. It was hunting everywhere for heretics, as timid old ladies are said to look under beds and in cupboards, before retiring for the night. [Crux, 3]
Ooh, sick burn! Wells feels an affinity with the heretics, and spends some time defending them: ‘heretics are experiments in man's unsatisfied search for truth’ [4]. There are potted histories of Charlemagne, the crusades (during which, according to Wells, the church managed ‘to defeat every ostensible purpose of this great eastward drive—every ostensible purpose’, which lead directly to ‘the disintegration of Christendom’ through the Black Death and Protestant Reformation). There's an odd digression into English literature, and the assertion that ‘the broad stream of creative literature in England from Chaucer to the present day unites in making loud rude skeptical noises’ [13] where organised religion and spirituality (especially, for some reason, Eastern spirituality) is concerned.

Wells is surprisingly positive where the Jesuits are concerned (founded, he says, by ‘tough and gallant young Spaniard named Inigo Lopez de Recalde of Loyola’) perhaps because he sees something of his own Samurai caste in the early history of the order: ‘the Jesuit had no home; the whole world was his parish. Mobility and cosmopolitanism were of the very essence of the Society’ [15]. But, says Wells, politics has poisoned the Jesuits: ‘it is impossible to acquit them of extreme political provocation [and] their obdurate persistence in evil-doing continues to this day’. He strikes an uncharacteristic note of British patriotism when he surveys a world otherwise overwhelmed by religious zealotry:
None of the British mixture of peoples can be described as passionately religious. None of them indeed seem to be passionate in any respect. They have as little liking and sympathy for the crime passionel as they have for the wild-eyed devotee in a manifest hair shirt ... Maybe it is the Gulf Stream or something geographical that makes them like this, maybe it is the fact that living, so to speak, at the end of Europe, so that for centuries, until America came into the world, every sort o.f man came to England and nobody wet away, they are o so mixed a strain that they believe nothing decidedly. Compromise and lack of emphasis is in their nature.

If I wanted to brag about the English people; if I were briefed for that purpose and had no way of evading so uncongenial a task, I should certainly associate this disposition to indifference in religious and social dogmas with the very exceptional share they have had in the inspiration and early organisation of scientific research. [Crux, 17]
He ends by confidently asserting ‘there will be no Roman Catholic Church at all in the fifth millennium A.D.’ [18] and, as a kind of afterthought, denying that he is attacking the religious impulse as such:
I am deriding organised High Church and Catholic Christianity, and I would like to make it plain that in doing so I am not disregarding what I might call the necessity of many minds, perhaps most young minds, feel for something one can express by such phrases as "the fatherhood of God" and ‘the kingdom of heaven within us’. That is the need the Roman Catholic Church trades upon and betrays. [Crux, 20]
Yeah. Right. This is, in the final analysis, an unpleasant book. It's attack on Catholicism as having added handles, or swastika crooks, to its cross results in a crooked sort of book: it is, in fact, liber ansato.

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