When trouble starts, who do you want by your side? A Navy Seal, or an Army Ranger? How about the world’s best mixed martial arts fighter? Maybe anyone with a sufficiently powerful firearm and the courage and know-how to use it?
Few today, I’d imagine, would clamor for a priest. What good is a priest in a knife fight or when the bullets start flying? I’d imagine the many millions who have never met, let alone befriended, a cleric would wonder if priests are even capable of the courage necessary in a real conflict.
That’s certainly the opinion of the great science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who presents a less than sympathetic portrayal of priests in his novel The War of the Worlds, first published in 1898. Though typically memorialized as one of the earliest (and greatest) exemplars of the science-fiction genre—and the subgenre of man versus alien—the book offers a biting commentary on the futility and uselessness of the theologically-inclined, and especially clerics.
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The War of the Worlds is told from the perspective of an amateur astronomer living in Surrey, outside London, in the 1890s. An artificial cylinder, originally thought to be a meteor, lands not far from the narrator’s home. Inside are Martians, who make short shrift of innocent onlookers by incinerating them with a heat ray. Soon thereafter, more Martians arrive, using massive tripod machines to batter civilians and soldiers alike as they rampage toward London. The invaders, it becomes apparent, aim to annihilate mankind, who are little more than a source of sustenance.
During the escape from his home, the narrator encounters a crazed Church of England cleric also fleeing the Martians who have destroyed his home and his church. His religion rocked by the calamitous events, the priest’s faith seems more to immobilize than inspire him. “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?” he asks. “All our work undone, all the work.”
The protagonist tries to reason with the curate, but it’s no use. “This must be the beginning of the end,” declares the unnerved clergyman. “The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and hide them.” In response, the protagonist, a true pragmatist, asks: “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man!”
Eventually, the two hide in an abandoned house. The curate is increasingly untethered from reality, oscillating between embarrassing cowardice and unhinged fanaticism. The narrator refers to the prelate’s “stupid rigidity of mind” and his lack of restraint in gluttonously devouring what little food and drink remain in the house. “He was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.” Suffice it to say that things do not end well for the clergyman.
For H.G. Wells, who was himself a socialist utopian who became increasingly antagonistic toward religion and God—even authoring an anti-clericalist book: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1943—faith undermines the intellect and human initiative. “There is no creed, no way of living left in the world at all, that really meets the needs of the time,” Wells declared in 1939. All religions are “in a state of jostling and mutually destructive movement.” For H.G. Wells, who was himself a socialist utopian who became increasingly antagonistic toward religion and God, faith undermines the intellect and human initiative.Tweet This
Though Wells is by no means the first outspokenly anti-clerical thinker, many Americans have inherited his perspective on clergy, be they Catholic, Anglican, or anything else. Our entertainment industry portrays clerics as conniving misers, eager to manipulate for personal gain. Clerics are abusive sexual deviants, repressed by an archaic religious code that vilifies sex. They are irrational, immature fools who believe in (or cynically exploit) fantastical myths that the enlightened abandoned long ago. Only those clergy who embrace and celebrate the ideologies of the sexual revolution and moral relativism—and are thus indistinguishable from other elitist therapeutic “experts”—are acceptable to our post-Christian society.
Not that any of those descriptions are true. My first (and thus far only) spiritual director was a career Navy pilot and U.S. Naval Academy graduate before he donned the collar. The parochial vicar at my last parish in Virginia, a man of impeccable integrity, served in the U.S. Air Force. During multiple tours in Afghanistan, I had the honor of getting to know about a half-dozen chaplains, Catholic and Protestant, who were not only good men but had endured great hardship and seen just as much combat as many of the enlisted men to whom they ministered.
I’ve met priests more brilliant, and with more advanced degrees, than the vast majority of the American population. Ivy League-educated Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., who heard my first confession after twenty years away from the Church, can run rhetorical circles around any academic. I’ve known Dominicans, Jesuits, and diocesan priests with degrees from the best universities in the country. They could easily have had prestigious and lucrative secular careers, but they chose humility, chastity, and poverty for the sake of Christ. In some cases, these men were successful before they entered the priesthood—I know one priest who was once a millionaire.
These are men I’d want with me in a foxhole. Not only would they willingly move through the trenches offering absolution to the penitent, they’d be the first to volunteer to heroically charge the enemy. Most of the priests I know are the exact opposite of that depicted in The War of the Worlds. They are brave, intelligent, clear-headed, and singularly focused. For these men, faith is no crutch or security blanket that when removed exposes them as cowardly degenerates. No, faith is the bulwark that emboldens them to acts of heroic charity, inspiring us in the pews to do the same.
At least, by God’s grace, that’s been my experience. I know many, sadly, have not had the same with their priests, many of whom, in their cowardice and complicity, have capitulated to the gods of the modern, narcissistic self. Yet the failure of some is no reason to abandon the Church in favor of the scientific skepticism one finds in H.G. Wells. Instead, we must find (and encourage) those religious who will help us reach Heaven. For, all told, when the **** hits the fan, I’d much rather have Maximilian Kolbe or Walter Ciszek by my side than Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins.
[Image Credit: Illustration by Warwick Goble, 1897]