Pope John Paul I liked to watch Father Brown on television. As do we all. He points out how much he enjoys G.K. Chesterton’s originality in the creation of Father Brown, but what he really wants to congratulate Chesterton for isn’t the beloved priest-detective but, rather, his equally impressive but less well-known book The Ball and The Cross.
If you think the unpredictable adventures of Father Brown are fascinating, just wait until you meet Professor Lucifer and Michael the monk. In The Ball and the Cross, we first meet them as they’re arguing wildly on top of a madcap, eccentric airship floating over St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The two debate the value of the Cross. Michael points out that, in their fury against Christ, all the atheistic rationalists end up not being all that rational. “You begin by breaking up the Cross,” he says, “but you end by breaking up the habitable world…”
This conclusion is correct, writes Cardinal Albino Luciani, the Archbishop of Venice and future Pope John Paul I. Between 1971 and 1975, the archbishop wrote a series of letters, known as Illustrissimi, that were published in the Catholic newspaper Messaggero di S. Antonio. There were 40 letters total, each one written to a historical figure, saint, or writer. One of the letters is to G.K. Chesterton. It focuses on The Ball and The Cross, using themes from the book to meditate on the question, “If you take away God, what remains, what does mankind become?”
What happens if we lose God?
The future Pope agrees with Chesterton. If we lose Christ and the Cross, or intentionally break the Cross and reject it, then the earth shatters as well. In abandoning God, we lose everything that makes us human, all our joy and creativity and happiness.
The enemies of the Church have always delighted in accusing her of thwarting progress, charging that Catholicism is backwards-looking and old-fashioned, that her priests are retrograde promoters of anti-human rules. The battle cry of these enemies is that mankind must throw off the shackles of religion in order to advance into a new era. “But this vaunted progress is not everything that was hoped,” writes Luciani.
He points out that improving technology is often applied to war and destruction, creating weapons of ever-greater size, the increase of pollution, and predatory, intrusive behavior from technocratic governments and corporations. Human progress that is limited only to this world quickly becomes part of the machine. It’s nothing more than a physical manipulation of our surroundings but it does nothing to address the human soul. Progress must also involve journeying closer to the next world. By this, Luciani means that progress includes moral progress and spiritual devotion.
The paradox of progress
The countercharge, which you may have heard before, is that religion is made-up so we muddle along the best we can. Spiritual progress is based on the teachings of Christ might sound nice but it’s a fairy tale. All that the Cross does is make people disconnect from this life in order to prepare for the next. The response that Luciani gives (which Chesterton would love) is that progress is a paradox.
In order to love this world and contribute to its flourishing, we must first love another world — the Kingdom of Heaven. Contrary to what some might think, it is Christianity alone that raises us from savagery and alienation in order to commit us to the common good. This is why the Church has always been the great civilizing force in society and a great charitable institution. It is precisely because Christians believe in heaven that we also believe in the earth. We are trying to make earth more like heaven. In other words, because we love the Cross, we also love the Ball (the earth).
To indulge in another typical Chestertonian paradox, it is the dying God who brings life, and the ascended Christ in Heaven who commits us earnestly to recognizing his presence among us on the earth.
It seems that, whether it’s in the 1970s when Illustrissimi was written or a thousand years in the past or the present-day, there will always be some who oppose the Cross. The genius of Chesterton – and of Archbishop Luciani’s commentary, which is worth reading in full – is showing that, far from being an abstract theological debate, the question of the Cross involves the fate of the world itself.
If we wish to make progress towards a robust culture in which art and beauty are promoted, peace is promoted, the poor are cared for and loved, the elderly are valued members of their families, and the unborn are protected, then we will begin by making friends with Christ. He is not our rival. He is our friend who has joined us in our humanity and who dispenses grace to assist our progress toward happiness.
There are some who will continue to not believe in him, writes Luciani, but Christ always answers, “I believe in you!”