The Scottish accountant, novelist, and Catholic convert, Bruce Marshall escaped Paris just two days before the Germans invaded, served in the army through the war, and then returned to France when the war ended. Perhaps best known now for Father Malachy’s Miracle and The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith, he also wrote spy stories and stories with accountants as heroes. He died in 1987, at the age of eighty-seven.
The problem is the rise of prices created by the black market, Marshall says, caused by people’s desire to make “excessive profits.” That, he says, is “a crisis of Christianity in an at least nominally Catholic country.”
Yet our parish church is choc-abloc for fourteen Masses every Sunday, and we have a Cure who is both eloquent and persuasive. It is true that many of the faithful have not conspicuously spiritual faces, but they do go to church, which is more than can be said of their Anglican counterparts. There is no doubt that more Frenchmen hear Mass on Sundays that Britons attended Matins or Nonconformist services. In Paris at least 20 per cent. of the population go to church every Sunday and that is more than can be said, I think, for the Protestant population of London.
In Britain, however, ration tickets are honoured and the necessities of life are not sold under the counter. In Britain the dairyman does not laugh at you, as French dairymen do, when you attempt to purchase your ration of butter at the legal price. Of course the explanation may be that no French dairymen go to Mass and that all British dairymen go to choral Matins.
It is not, however, only French dairymen who attempt to charge more than the legal price for their goods; it is practically every French shopkeeper with anything to sell from a bolster to a balloon tyre. And some of those dishonest French shopkeepers probably go to Mass on Sundays just as some of their honest British opposite numbers probably give the Litany the go-by on Wednesdays.
Can it be that the rugby scrum and the cricket pitch teach commercial morality more persuasively than the Eldest Daughter of the Church? Can it be that the Member of Parliament was right after all, when he said in the debate in the House on the Education Bill, that, from what he had observed of Catholic education on the Continent, he didn’t understand why the Archbishops and Bishops were making such a fuss about preserving it in England?
Well, I for one sought admittance to the Catholic Church precisely because I considered that she inspired and taught morality much more effectively than the “playing fields of Eton.” I still think that she does so, whether in Caledonia, stern and wild, or in Paris, not quite so stern. I do not believe that the loudest voiced football coach in the world would have succeeded where Fénelon and the Curé of Ars seem, for the moment, to have failed.
But I do believe that we must face the very unpleasant fact that French Catholics are not quite as good at loving their neighbour as British Protestants are.
I do not think, however, that they would have been any better at the job if they had been Scottish Presbyterians or Wesleyan Methodists, Although I have the highest respect for both Presbyterians and Methodists, I think that their less disciplined religions would have been even less successful and that, without Catholic, Apostolic and Roman authority, prayer-books as well as lawnmowers might have been selling at black market prices.
I am not suggesting that the thousands of obscure French saints who go to Mass and Holy Communion every day do not love their neighbour as well as God or that as soon as they have finished the Stations of the Cross they run out of church to sell, at illicit prices, needles to nuns.
I am, however. very seriously suggesting that the great unlighted tepid cohorts of Conformists who content themselves with the minimum in God’s service do not even go as far as that minimum in their neighbour’s. Every Frenchman to whom I have spoken agrees that the French crisis is a moral crisis, but it is always other Frenchmen’s moral crisis and never his own.
Most Frenchmen blame the Government for their troubles, even as you and I: they do not realise that the Government of a democracy is almost always a microcosm of the electorate and that, if ministers are shiftless and slack, it is generally because those who put them into office are not competent and energetic.
The employer who is responsible for social unrest by paying too small wages and the tradesman who decimates the workers’ salaries by his nefarious truck are, however often they go to church, worse Christians than the Communist who disbelieves in revelation: and, what is more, their had example is often responsible for the atheism of the Communist.
Whether the French crisis will end in compromise or civil war I cannot say; but however it ends. and whichever side is victorious, the crisis itself and hence the result will have been brought about by the inability of Frenchmen to observe at least the second of the two great commandments. Personally, I think that the world will find no peace until its inhabitants learn to observe both great commandments, which, quite apart from showing us the way to heaven, provide the only brass tacks with which we can securely nail our carpet down on earth.
Other Lessons from the Archives can be found here.
Photo credit: Girl carrying milk out of a dairy in France, some time in the thirties (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images).
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