John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892, Bloemfontein – 1973, Bournemouth) was a British philologist and author, best known for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and his influence on the Fantasy-genre. Tolkien was also a devout Roman Catholic with a strong opinion on the changes in the Church. In this article I have collected interesting fragments from letters written by Tolkien about his views on Catholicism. (The remainder of this website is in the Dutch language.)
About changes in the Church
(From a letter to Michael Tolkien, dated 25 Aug. 1967)
[…]’Trends’ in the Church are…. serious, especially to those accustomed to find in it a solace and a ‘pax’ in times of temporal trouble, and not just another arena of strife and change.
But imagine the experience of those born (as I) between the Golden and the Diamond Jubilee of Victoria. Both senses or imaginations of security have been progressively stripped away from us. Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time (Vide Gandalf I 70 and III 155). ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me, when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21.
I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go!
(I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyalty hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but to pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it. There are, of course, various elements in the present situation, which are confused, though in fact distinct (as indeed in the behaviour of modern youth, pan of which is inspired by admirable motives such as antiregimentation, and anti-drabness, a sort of lurking romantic longing for ‘cavaliers’, and is not necessarily allied to the drugs or the cults of fainéance and filth).
About the Roman Catholic Church pictured as a tree
The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directness – which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian ‘liturgical’ behaviour from the beginning as now. (St Paul’s strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!)
Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set.
There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard-seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is pan of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils. The other motive (now so confused with the primitivist one, even in the mind of any one of the reformers): aggiornamento: bringing up to date: that has its own grave dangers, as has been apparent throughout history. With this ‘ecumenicalness’ has also become confused.
About ecumenism and charity
I find myself in sympathy with those developments that are strictly ‘ecumenical’, that is concerned with other groups or churches that call themselves (and often truly are) ‘Christian’. We have prayed endlessly for Christian re-union, but it is difficult to see, if one reflects, how that could possibly begin to come about except as it has, with all its inevitable minor absurdities. An increase in ‘charity’ is an enormous gain. As Christians those faithful to the Vicar of Christ must put aside the resentments that as mere humans they feel – e.g. at the ‘cockiness’ of our new friends (esp. C[hurch] of E[ngland]). One is now often patted on the back, as a representative of a church that has seen the error of its ways, abandoned its arrogance and hauteur, and its separatism; but I have not yet met a ‘protestant’ who shows or expresses any realization of the reasons in this country for our attitude : ancient or modern : from torture and expropriation down to ‘Robinson’ and all that. Has it ever been mentioned that R[oman] C[atholic]s still suffer from disabilities not even applicable to Jews? As a man whose childhood was darkened by persecution, I find this hard. But charity must cover a multitude of sins! There are dangers (of course), but a Church militant cannot afford to shut up all its soldiers in a fortress. It had as bad effects on the Maginot Line.
About his education
I owe a great deal (and perhaps even the Church a little) to being treated, surprisingly for the time, in a more rational way. Fr Francis obtained permission for me to retain my scholarship at K[ing] E[dward’s] S[chool] and continue there, and so I had the advantage of a (then) first rate school and that of a ‘good Catholic home’ – ‘in excelsis’: virtually a junior inmate of the Oratory house, which contained many learned fathers (largely ‘converts’). Observance of religion was strict. Hilaryand I were supposed to, and usually did, serve Mass before getting on our bikes to go to school in New Street. So I grew up in a two-front state, symbolizable by the Oratorian Italian pronunciation of Latin, and the strictly ‘philological’ pronunciation at that time introduced into our Cambridge dominated school. I was even allowed to attend the Headmaster’s classes on the N[ew] T[estament] (in Greek). I certainly took no ‘harm’, and was better equipped ultimately to make my way in a non-Catholic professional society.[…]
About scandals and faith
(From a letter to Michael Tolkien, dated 1 November 1963)
[…]You speak of ‘sagging faith’, however. That is quite another matter:
In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge).
‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision : it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for ‘final perseverance’. The temptation to ‘unbelief (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Pan of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the ‘scandals’, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe any more, even if I had never met any one in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call Our Lord a fraud to His face.
If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is : garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But 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, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.
It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’
, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time : such as ‘before Abraham came to be lam‘ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father‘ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life‘. We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences.
About the importance of Communion
I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame.
(However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.) The only cure for sagging of 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. Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for):
make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste.
Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. (It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which [Our] Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.)V
About the Pope, Reformation and Vatican II
I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and rearising.
But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. ‘Feed my sheep‘ was His last charge to St Peter; and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched – ‘the blasphemous fable of the Mass’ – and faith/works a mere red herring.
I suppose the greatest reform of our time was that carried out by St Pius X: surpassing anything, however needed, that the [Second Vatican] Council will achieve. I wonder what state the Church would now be but for it.
Conclusion- ‘I failed as a father’
This is rather an alarming and rambling disquisition to write! It is not meant to be a sermon! I have no doubt that you know as much and more. I am an ignorant man, but also a lonely one. And I take the opportunity of a talk, which I am sure I should now never take by word of mouth. But, of course, I live in anxiety concerning my children: who in this harder crueller and more mocking world into which I have survived must suffer more assaults than I have. But I am one who came up out of Egypt, and pray God none of my seed shall return thither. I witnessed (half-comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church; and received the astonishing charity of [Fr.] Francis Morgan. But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again: but alas! Indeed did not live up to it. I brought you all up ill and talked to you too little. Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practise my religion – especially at Leeds, and at 22 Northmoor Road. Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. I regret those days bitterly (and suffer for them with such patience as I can be given); most of all because I failed as a father.
Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer (the Hælend as the Saviour was usually called in Old English) shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry Benedictus qui venit in nomme Domini.
J.R.R. Tolkien, red. Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981 London).