In the 1920s, the greatest of twentieth-century poets, T.S. Eliot, converted to Christianity, becoming a communicant in the Church of England. To say that this shocked the poetic, literary, and art worlds would be nothing short of an understatement.
For the remainder of his life, Eliot explored–in his formal poetry, plays, and essays–the role of a Christian in the world. While there is much to consider with every aspect of Eliot’s writing, I’m particularly taken with a speech he gave in 1933 and later printed as a chapter in his 1936 book, Essays: Ancient and Modern (London: Faber and Faber). Entitled “Catholicism and International Order,” Eliot called for a full immersion into the citizenship of the City of God while remaining a part of, but not ultimately tied to, the various and particular cities of man. In this, of course, he echoed St. Paul in his letter to the Romans and St. Augustine in the City of God.
Eliot believed, as far as we know, that while the Roman Catholic Church was certainly legitimate, the Church of England was the fulfillment of Roman Catholic theology. The Roman Catholic Church as an institution had become rigidly fundamentalist in the mind of Eliot, while the evangelical churches had merely become outlets of excessive emotionalism.
What Eliot would think of the chaos of the Anglican and Episcopal churches today, we can only guess. Eliot died in January 1965, still believing his church firmly Catholic.
On this Memorial Day Weekend, it’s more than worth considering Eliot’s thoughts on our real citizenship. Here are several quotes from his 1933 lecture. Enjoy.
Everything below is taken from T.S. Eliot, “Catholicism and International Order.” Delivered 1933 at Oxford. Reprinted in Essays: Ancient and Modern (London, 1936).
“We, on the other hand, feel convinced, however darkly, that our spiritual faith should give us some guidance in temporal matters; that if it does not, the fault is our own; that morality rests upon religious sanction, and that the social organization of the world rests upon moral sanction; that we can only judge of temporal values in the light of eternal values. We are committed to what in the eyes of the world must be a desperate belief, that a Christian world-order, the Christian world-order, is ultimately the only one which, from any point of view will work.”
“Only the Christian thinker is compelled to examine all his premisses, and try to to start from the fundamental terms and propositions.”
“I believe that the Catholic Church, with its inheritance from Israel and from Greece, is still, at it always has been, the great repository for wisdom.”
“And human wisdom, I add finally, cannot be separated from divine wisdom without tending to become merely worldly wisdom, as vain as folly itself.”
“For true worldly wisdom leads up to, and is fulfilled in, and is incomplete without, other-worldly wisdom.”
“The Catholic should have high ideals–or rather, I should say absolute ideals–and moderate expectations: the heretic, whether he call himself fascist, or communist, or democrat or rationalist, always has low ideals and great expectations.”
“Any programme that a Catholic can envisage must aim at the conversion of the whole world.”
The Catholic “must never devote the same passion to any Kingdom of this world that he should render to the Kingdom of God.”
“As Catholic citizens, we must not be content to peruse blue books, newspapers, and political and economic treatises; we must first of all become thoroughly conversant with our own theology.”
“There is a Catholic habit of thought and of feeling, which is a bond between Catholics of the most diverse races, nations, classes and cultures.”
[photo of T.S. Eliot taken from The New York Times]