Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The "Gloomy Dean" and Thomas More's "Unfinished" Reformation

William Ralph Inge was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral from 1911 to 1934 (thus a successor of John Colet, John Feckenham, and John Donne, among many others) and a prolific author. He was called the "Gloomy Dean" because of the rather pessimistic attitude he expressed in his Evening Standard columns. I think a more elegant epithet would have been the "Melancholy Dean" as a pun on Hamlet!

According to this site, Dean Inge "was a passionate Christian Platonist known in the academy for his work on mysticism, Plotinus and a synthesis of Christianity and Platonism." Inge was definitely passionate about his opposition to the Catholic Church. As the Wikipedia article states, "He was a strong proponent of a spiritual type of religion—"that autonomous faith which rests upon experience and individual inspiration"—as opposed to one of coercive authority; he was outspoken in his criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church."

In an essay titled "Protestantism: A Problem Novel", G.K. Chesterton critiqued a pamphlet in which the Protestant Divine argued for a new Reformation, since he was not inclined to follow Lutheran or Calvinist doctrine. But first Chesterton argues the pamphlet should have been titled Catholicism since the Dean cannot really define Protestantism, but can certainly attack Catholicism:

It is only what he has to say about Catholicism that is clear, consistent and to the point. It is warmed and quickened by the human and hearty motive of hatred; and it makes everything else in the book look timid and tortuous by comparison.

Chesterton quotes Dean Inge's description of the purpose of Protestantism and comments on it:
"What is the main function of Protestantism? It is essentially an attempt to check the tendency to corruption and degradation which attacks every institutional religion." So far, so good. In that case St. Charles Borromeo, for instance, was obviously a leading Protestant. St. Dominic and St. Francis, who purged the congested conventionalism of much of the monasticism around them, were obviously leading Protestants. The Jesuits who sifted legend by the learning of Bollandism, were obviously leading Protestants. But most living Protestant leaders are not leading Protestants. If degradation drags down EVERY institutional religion, it has presumably dragged down Protestant institutional religion. Protestants might possibly appear to purge Protestantism; but so did Catholics appear to purge Catholicism. Plainly this definition is perfectly useless as a DISTINCTION between Protestantism and Catholicism.
But then, Chesterton cites the strangest comment of all in the Gloomy Dean's pamphlet:

It is in this direction that Protestants may look for the beginning of what may really be a new Reformation, a resumption of the unfinished work of Sir Thomas More, Giordano Bruno and Erasmus.
I'm not sure what Giordano Bruno would have really contributed to this new Reformation? Denial of the Divine Person of  Our Incarnate Savior? Heliocentrism? But Chesterton really has some fun with Inge's suggestion that we need "a resumption of the unfinished work of Sir Thomas More . . .":

In short, Protestants may look forward to a Reformation modelled on the work of two Catholics and one obscure mystic, who was not a Protestant and of whose tenets they and the world know practically nothing. One hardly knows where to begin, in criticising this very new Reformation, two-thirds of which was apparently started by men of the Old Religion. We might meekly suggest that, if it be regrettable that the work of Sir Thomas More was "unfinished," some portion of the blame may perhaps attach to the movement that cut off his head. . . .

For this, it seems, is how we stand. We are not to follow Luther and Calvin. But we are to follow More and Erasmus. And that, if you please, is the true Protestantism and the promise of a second Reformation. We are to copy the views and virtues of the men who found they could remain under the Pope, and especially of one who actually died for the supremacy of the Pope.

So I have to ask, did Dean Inge realize what kind of Reformation Sir/Saint Thomas More would have led or encouraged? More would certainly have reformed abuses: he would have used Bishop/St. John Fisher as the model of a good bishop, resident and attentive; he would have held up the Carthusians and Observant Franciscans (also martyred under Henry VIII) as models of monastic and mendicant life; he would have agreed with Erasmus that Catholic piety and devotion needed to be based on the Holy Bible. Did Dean Inge realize that St. Thomas More's "unfinished work" of Reformation would have maintained Catholic teaching on the Sacraments, on the Real Presence of Holy Communion, on the role of the Papacy? St. Thomas More would not have been a strong proponent of a Reformation based on "that autonomous faith which rests upon experience and individual inspiration"--he would have looked to the legitimate authority of the Catholic Church and would have appealed to "Christendom" as he said at his trial, not to something autonomous and individual, for the inspiration of his Reformation.

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