FORTY years have passed
since I was defeated in my controversial correspondence, "Difficulties." with Mgr. Ronald Knox.
During a recent visit to Rome I was presented to a cardinal who. in the course of a brief conversation, made one memorable remark. "Too many Catholics," he said, "forget that we are a missionary Church, and not only in non-Christian countries.
"The conversion of nonCatholics should still be regarded as of supreme and not of secondary importance." (And not, he might have added, a specialist job which can be left only to specialist institutions.) The great majority of our countrymen never enter a church; but some of my friends who really are in a position to assess religious
and irreligious trends in this country tell me that there is an increasing interest if not in Christianity at least in the supernatural.
Certainly there is an increasing disillusion with the secularism which deprives life of any ultimate significance. My own contacts with skiers of all ages, whom I meet during the winter months at Mfirren, confirms this verdict.
Our basic problem today is with the problem of contact. How can we establish contact with those whom we seek to convert? Never was the tyranny of fashion so potent as on this all-important issue.
It is definitely not "with it," particularly for the young. to be practising members of a Church, and interest in the supernatural is condoned only in those circles if the conventions of the unconven tional are not unduly outraged.
A guilty interest in the supernatural may be condoned if introduced by some such apologia as: "I may be interested in the supernatural, but of course I've no use for Churches," which is only slightly less silly than insisting that one is interested in life but has no use for bodies.
"Withitry"—a less harsh word than snobbery — prevents many of those who are not prepared to admit their need for the supernatural, of which they are uneasily aware. ft °in reading a specific defence of Christianity. Still less, attending a lecture on a Christian theme will not prevent them reading or listening to a debate between a Christian and an atheist.
During my 18 visits to the United States I have lectured to Catholics in every state but Alaska, the attendance rarely exceeding 500 and normally 'being somewhere between 200 and 400. but debates always packed a hall. In Australia, for instance, my debate in Melbourne with the secretary of the Rationalist Society in Melbourne filled a vast hall, with students standing 15 deep at the back.
I have been the part author of four books consisting of an exchange of controversial letters with well known writers. The first of these books, "Difficulties," with Mgr. Ronald Knox, had an important influence on my conversion. and my controversy with C. E. M. Joad had an important influence on his conversion. He died a practising Anglo-Catholic.
Dr. G. Ca Coulton had boasted for years that no Catholic of any standing would dare to exchange letters with hini. Cardinal Hinsley suggested that I should accept the challenge. and after Dr. Coulton had failed to find any nonCatholic publisher to commission the book, Burns and Oates obliged.
The most useful of the three books in which I defended Christianity Cathos licism was "Science and the Supernatural" with J. B. S. Haldane. the distinguished scientist. I have met few men with a better brain or rnore brilliant as a controversialist. I was not. however, in the least overawed by the fact that he was manifestly my intellectual superior for he had one decisive disadvantage very poor case.
None of those who reluctantly agreed with the verdict
of a reviewer in the Times
Literary Supplement "that I got much the better of Haldane"—a verdict shared by those who selected the book for distribution to the Catholic Book Club of Americaa-scould have consoled themselves with the illusion that I was the cleverer controversialist.
Too many Christians have been unduly overawed by the superiority complex of atheistic scientists in their attitude, to the religion they have never tried to understand.
"Arnold Lunn's controversy with Haldane"—wrote Lord Longford in "Born to Be lieve"—removed my sneaking suspicion that in a real showdown there would be materialistic questions the man of religion would not face."
Such "sneaking suspicions" would be far fewer if Catholics were more successful in solving the problem of contact with our de-Christianised fellow-countrymen.
Debating is one of the most effective means of establishing contact. Two of my four published debates were major influences in the conversion of two debaters. The platform debate which I recall with the greatest gratitude was the debate with the editor of the American Daily Worker, Louis Budenz, for whom our debate was an important influcnce, as he later wrote, on his return to the Church of his baptism.
"The last time," an American bishop said to me. "that we Catholics were associated with an unpopular cause was during -the Spanish Civil War. We are no longer hated. because we are innocuous."
If the Catholic Truth Society, for example, began to specialise in training debaters and in the course of the next few years sent debating teams throughout the British Isles, we should have gone a long way to solving the problem of contact with unbelievers.
Such a debating group would have a further advantage. The British Humanist Association expressed in the columns of the Tablet (December 7, 1968) a keen desire for "dialogue" with Catholics. I wrote to the Secretary to offer my "dialogue" services either on a platform debate or in an exchange of letters for publication, but it seemed that the "Humanists" were selective in their conception of a suitable Catholic for dialoguing.
It would be far more difficult for "Humanists" or other secularist societies to evade the challenge of an organisation with the prestige of the Catholic Truth Society.