July 5th, 2012Sigrid Undset and the Fate of Europeby Paul Adams | http://ethicsculture.blogspot.com/

I am reading Sigrid Undset’s Stages of the Road, a collection of essays written in the years after she won the Nobel Prize for literature, published in English in 1934, and now reissued with an introduction by Elizabeth Scalia.  As the new edition’s blurb says, it is a “fascinating collection of of saints’ lives, a prophetic critique of modernity, and a surprisingly contemporary take on being Catholic—in particular a Catholic woman—in a sometimes hostile secular world.”  It is also—strikingly in these days of religious indifferentism, casual heresy, and lowest-common-denominator ecumenism—a powerful critique of Protestantism, its history and continuing legacy in Europe.

Undset wrote as a Catholic convert, raised by atheists, in a country, Norway, then and now every bit as hostile to the Catholic faith as England.  (Today there are more Muslims than Catholics in Norway.)  In her preface to the English edition, Undset makes two points about an ancient Christian practice that Protestantism abandoned, the veneration of saints.  She herself produced some of the finest writings on saints, including a vivid, beautifully written biography of Catherine of Siena and the essays in this book.

First, Undset notes that “the cult of saints excludes the cult of success—the veneration of those people who have got on well in this world, the snobbish admiration of wealth and fame” (p. xii).  She points out that the heresy so much associated with the Protestant ethic—what Undset calls the “religious business instinct” that attributes worldly success, personal or national, to divine favor and poverty or disaster to God’s punishment of vice—is opposed by the Church in her veneration of saints.  They were martyrs or exemplars of heroic virtue in life, but very few were successful in worldly terms.

The second point relates to the limited effectiveness of the threat of Hell in bringing about justice and charity on earth.

Even in those times when most men firmly believed in Heaven and Hell there were always plenty of them who preferred to brave the threat of Hell rather than renounce the joys of self-worship, the gratification of hatred and power, or subordinate themselvesto a force to which their whole ego was antagonistic (p. xiii).

It seems that there are two ways of dealing with this problem, both of which become evident in Protestant Christianity.  One is to intensify fire-and-brimstone preaching, to put the fear of Hell into men’s hearts; the other is denial (outright denial of Hell’s existence or its compatibility with the existence of a loving God, or a psychological denial that represses consciousness of what is at stake).  These find expression in today’s fundamentalist and liberal tendencies respectively.  Undset points to the saints and their veneration by the Church as providing a different perspective:

The position is this, that the Christian Church can never have the right to suppress what her Founder has said about eternal perdition.  But it is equally certain that what the Church has achieved has not been achieved by frightened instruments who shrank in slavish terror before the wrath of a cruel God.  She has accomplished it through her saints who had the heroic love of God
of the Uncreated Creator of the created world, in which the fight is for or against God.  The sectarian animosity against the cult of saints is one of the reasons which have made it possible to represent Christianity as a religion of fear, not of heroism (p. xiii).

The excellent, thorough, and not-to-be-missed review of Stages of the Road by Webster Bull at his blog site, Witness, emphasizes several other telling points in what amounts to a devastating critique of the Reformation.  That catastrophe, Undset argues, “was no reformation of the Church but a new formation, which was in keeping with the taste and feelings of the rising middle class. It needed vast and unscrupulous propaganda before it could make any pretense of being an ‘improvement’ of the Church . . . ”

In response to Protestant and secularist criticisms of the Church’s attitude to women, Undset claims that Catholic women traditionally have been given “a freedom from interference which would be inconceivable in a society molded by Lutheranism or Calvinism.”  Bull’s review echoes my experience growing up in an Anglican-secularist environment in England:

This struck a chord with me. As a convert from the Anglican Church, I never stop hearing about women in the priesthood. Yet as a young Episcopalian I never heard tales of a single notable Anglican woman, the way a young Catholic hears tell of Mary, Margaret, Monica, Catherine, Teresa, Thérèse, and their saintly sisters. “So long as Catholicism was the dominating element in the intellectual life of Europe,” Undset says, “a woman who really had a contribution to make to the spiritual life of her time was given an opportunity to do so.” St. Angela (1474–1540), a third-order Franciscan who founded the Ursulines as a company of virgins living outside any convent, was a stellar example.

Then came the Reformation. “Where the culture of a country was molded by Lutheranism or Calvinism,” Undset writes, “the women in the course of a few generations were brought up to be content with existing simply for the sake of the men.” Can I hear you say ouch?! Such a charge could not have gone down well in 1930s Norway, when Undset wrote it.


The essays, written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, have a strikingly contemporary and prophetic feel.  In the final essay, which addresses marriage and suicide, as Bull says, “she accuses Protestant churches of caving in to the middle-class mentality, which overlooks the gravity of taking one’s own life while condoning divorce. In both cases, only the Catholic Church has kept its eye on the prize: our eternal salvation.”

Undset warns her fellow Europeans that they cannot expect to throw aside Catholicism while keeping its many benefits:

We must try to make this clear to ourselves—we have no right to assume that any part of European tradition, cultural values, moral ideas, emotional wealth, which has its origin in the dogmatically defined Christianity of the Catholic Church, will continue to live a ‘natural’ life, if the people of Europe reject Christianity and refuse to accept God’s supernatural grace. One might just as well believe that a tree whose roots were severed should continue to bear leaves and blossoms and fruit.

As Bull’s review puts it, “Eighty years after these essays were written, Europe is suffering the consequences of its disavowal of the Catholic faith, just as Undset predicted.”

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  • July 6 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Good review, Paul. Thanks. Undset's analogy of the roots of the tree brings the Scripture comes to mind: I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing.