From 1963 to 1967 (during the Second Vatican Council and immediately following it), J.R.R. Tolkien wrote several letters to his son Michael. In them, Tolkien, who personally disliked many of the changes then being made to Church discipline and practice, explains why and how to be loyal to the Church in a time of great turmoil. The wisdom found in these letters seems especially pertinent to us today. Perusing them will increase our hope and give us a plan of action.
First, Tolkien notes that great turmoil and scandal in the Church can often be more painful than our own personal crosses: “I think the trouble in our Church is at present more trying than all our personal and physical woes” (Letter 294a; the numbers given to the letters are those in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter). This is a good thing, for it proves that we do love the Church deeply. But Tolkien also recognizes that the Church’s troubles impact us and hurt us. We are not mere abstract observers. When the Church struggles, we struggle, for we are its members.
One reason that troubles in the Church unsettle us so much is that we suppose it to be a place of solace from the world. The world and its secular culture are expected to be shocking and disturbing—we do not look for peace or security there. But we turn to the Church for these things. At the very least we want the Church to be free from these issues. We turn to the Church for clarity, security, and peace. So, Tolkien explains, when we expect these things of the Church, we are especially disturbed by its troubles since they break our expectations (Letter 306).
Second, when Tolkien is directly responding to Michael’s report that his faith is sagging, Tolkien commiserates with him. Tolkien writes that he has suffered greatly at the hands of “stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests” (Letter 250). He admits that his love for God may be weakened by “the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers” (Letter 250). Yet, he offers a paternal correction to his son. Tolkien explains that these shortcomings or outright sins are only temptations. As with any temptation, we must not give into them and sin because of them. We must not lose faith or love because of them. The only real or legitimate reason to leave the Church, Tolkien insists, is unbelief.
If we believe what Christ says and what the Church teaches, then we must expect such shortcomings and sins from the clergy. Tolkien points out that the Apostles, whom Jesus personally choose, had many shortcomings and sins: from ambition to cowardice and outright betrayal. So, the sin of any person, even Peter himself or his successors, should not surprise us and is never a reason to abandon Christ’s Church. Nor are such sins or shortcomings reasons to not believe in Christ or the Church He established, for He warned us about these sins. Regarding liturgical issues, Tolkien writes in 1967 that even the early Church suffered from liturgical abuses, and that St. Paul wrote to correct them, so these should not surprise us either (Letter 306).
Further, Tolkien reminds us that we are among the sinners: “We should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalizers not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter” (Letter 250). It would be extremely prideful and foolish if we thought that we ourselves were never the cause of scandal to others. In reality, we probably often give scandal to people and make it harder, not easier, for them to love Christ. How, then, should we react to being scandalized ourselves—with harsh anger, or with understanding, pity, and forgiveness? If we wish to be forgiven for our offenses, then we must forgive others their offenses.
Thus, we should not be surprised by scandal—the sins of others should not be occasions for us to sin. On the contrary, since we ourselves are members of the Church, we should expect to find great sinners (and just plain incompetence) everywhere. When we encounter others’ sin, or are tempted by it, we must bear others’ faults with love.
What, though, is the chief reason to be loyal to the Church amidst the storm? We must remain loyal because the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ. Only disbelieving that claim is a legitimate or sufficient reason to leave the Church. All other reasons are distractions. Whatever troubles we may encounter in the Church, Tolkien cites Peter’s words to Christ at the end of John 6, when many people left Christ due to the teaching of the Eucharist. As Peter said, “we have nowhere else to go” (Letter 294a). In two different letters, Tolkien says this to his son (Letters 294a and 306).
Since the Catholic Church is the true Church, we must be loyal to her. Tolkien reminds us that loyalty “only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it” (Letter 306). In another letter where he discusses loyalty, Tolkien references G.K. Chesterton’s idea of loyalty in Orthodoxy. There, Chesterton explains that one must be loyal enough to fix the issues in one’s nation or Church. If one abandons the Church when she is stressed, then one was never really loyal. Instead, loyalty truly shows itself when the thing we love is troubled and needs fixing. Then, Tolkien cites Gandalf’s famous speech to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo wishes the One Ring had not been found in his lifetime, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” (Letter 312).
How, then, does Tolkien say we should be loyal to the Church in times of great trouble? He gives two practical steps for us. First, do not discuss the Church’s troubles around non-Catholics (Letter 294a). During times of trouble, we must demonstrate our loyalty by not critiquing the Church around those who may be scandalized by it. Just as Paul teaches in Romans 14-15, we should abstain from doing things that might hurt our brothers. Thus, in times of trouble, we should not criticize the Church around those who are weak. This first includes non-Catholics (whom Tolkien specifies), but it could also include Catholics who are weaker in the faith or more prone to these temptations of scandal. So, Tolkien first recommends a silent loyalty.
Second, Tolkien recommends the frequent reception of Holy Communion as an excellent cure for temptations against faith. He writes, “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals” (Letter 250). He continues to offer some advice to his son which, like his advice to avoid publicly criticizing the Church, is certainly difficult to accept; even so, this advice will likely be helpful for us. Tolkien advises that if we are struggling to love certain persons or groups in the Church, or if our faith is floundering, then we should go to Mass with people we dislike. We should commune with those who especially bother us: “I can recommend this as an exercise . . . make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste . . . Go to Communion with them (and pray for them)” (Letter 250).
Tolkien lived through an especially tumultuous time of the Church—through Vatican II and its early reception. He suffered much from this, and from the sins of others in general. Yet he remained loyal to the Church because he believed that Christ established it. He continued to love the Church and frequent the sacraments. He tried to love and commune with those who especially bothered him. To help strengthen his faith and love for all the Church’s members, he would seek out liturgies that he did not naturally enjoy, with people for whom he felt a natural dislike. Instead of standing apart from those people and judging them, he sought them out and worshipped God with them. We would all do well to imitate Tolkien in this.
Image: J.R.R. Tolkien as a younger man. From Wikimedia Commons.
Matthew McKenna is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Ave Maria University in Florida.