Papers Of A Pariah, by Robert Hugh Benson
This book begins under a bit of a disadvantage, and that is the fact that it is titled papers of a pariah. This is a rather unfortunate beginning, and the essays included in this collection do not overcome the bad impression garnered by that unfortunate title. When someone finds themselves in the position of a pariah, there are two simultaneous elements that need to be undertaken. The author, as is common, is quite adept at pointing a finger outward at persecutors and haters. And it is indeed true that this an element in people being pariahs, sometimes a decisive element. But there is a second aspect of criticism that is important, and that is self-criticism that recognizes that which is odd or off-putting about oneself that allows one to be turned into a pariah. This author fails to have the sort of self-mocking sense of humor that allows someone to be viewed with a degree of compassion and understanding. There are authors in the Catholic tradition–and I know because I have read them–who are able to lightly poke fun of their own foibles as well as the quirks of their tradition in such a way as to make certain elements of the defense of traditional morality and authority appealing to those who would not by nature or background be obvious supporters of such claims. This author, though, does not seek to win over others through shrewd self-awareness, and that is a great shame.
This book is about a couple hundred pages or so and it is divided into a variety of essays on various matters related to the author’s thinking and religious practices. The author begins with a discussion of the requiem. This promising beginning is followed by an essay that points out the delusions of the irreligious mind, a topic on which I have at least some degree of agreement with the author. After that the author tackles the subject of intellectual slavery, feeling it worthwhile to touch as many third rails as possible, I suppose, even if there is a great deal of worth in this essay as well. After that comes a look at God as a Father, with an unfortunate comparison with the priesthood. Two essays follow that look at the sense of the supernatural and the mystical in Catholicism and without. After that comes an essay on holy week, and then one on dancing as religious exercise. After that comes essays on religious persecution suffered by Catholics (but strangely not committed by Catholics), science and faith, low mass (and the author’s grudging respect for it), benediction, the personality of the Catholic church and death, thus ending where the book begins in a reflection of the end of life.
Again, as is the case with the other books I have read from this author, it must be said that the raw materials of this book are not hopeless in terms of being turned into something that could be of wide interest to many readers. There are certainly writers who could have turned these subjects into interesting and thought-provoking essays that might have won the respect as well as the approval of even unsympathetic audiences. But the author is too strident and too one-sided in his views of Catholicism and its relationship to be appealing to those who come from different religious traditions. Even in cases where the author is right, such as discussing the persecution of Catholics within England, the author fails to recognize that this persecution of Catholicism occurred in a context in which the Roman Catholic Church was both sinner and sinned against, where a Pope had sanctioned terrorism against Queen Elizabeth and her regime, thus pitting all patriotic English people against the Pope, a deeply unwise act. It is failing to acknowledge this context and how it encouraged people who were afraid of the power of Rome to be hostile to its claims and to its authority to treat others as they were at least liable to be treated.