J.R.R. Tolkien to his son in the 60’s about the Church and bad or stupid priests

I saw – HERE – an excerpt from a letter of J.R.R. Tolkien to his son in the 60’s, about the time of the Council.  He writes about the Church and bad or stupid priests.

You speak of ‘sagging faith’, however, that is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). ‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for ‘final perseverance’. The temptation to ‘unbelief’ (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened’, and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

Tolkien wrote what many think is the greatest English language novel of the 20th century.

Movies have been made, but they are to the books what the vague flicker in of Plato’s cave is to the forms of things.

Have you never read them?  You are in for a treat.   Read them.


How I envy a person who gets to read them for the first time.

They played a huge roll in my young life which laid invisible foundations for my conversion years later.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Thomas says:

    Thanks for posting that bit of light in these dark times. I’ve read LOR so many times. I think I’ll read it again. It’s beeen a few years.

  2. Spinmamma says:

    I first read Tolkein when I was 14 years old, and fell in love, which I have never fallen out of. They are books which, when one finishes them, leave one empty and feeling as though a good friend has gone away. I then read them aloud in full to my younger siblings, and later to my own children. Thank you for posting this letter excerpt. I had not read it before. Such wisdom , faith, and common sense. He does know how to get to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he?
    BTW–I am in full agreement with your assessment of the movies compared with the books–although I was in general pleasantly surprised with how well the books were adapted (speaking of the extended versions of the movies.) Regarding his observations to his son—plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as my dear Parish priest reminded me recently. We will always have a Judas.

  3. Malta says:

    @Thomas: there is so much beauty left in the Church, notwithstanding this terrible “pope.” I was an English Major in College, and my favorite writers were either Catholic or Orthodox; Dante, Chaucer, and even Shakespeare come to mind (yes, Shakespeare, but he hid his Catholicism). We have Dosoevsky on the Orthodox side. And JRR Tolkien only attended the TLM until he died. Being of Irish descent I have read Ulysses by James Joyce several times. Joyce said, “I never left the Church.” He was a critic of it, but was known to attend high mass just before he died. Think of Palestrina, Hayden, and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvFUw9HvRf8

    All of the most incredible artists in every genre have been Catholic. This crisis, too, shall pass.

  4. HezzerK says:

    First timer here! So far, halfway through the Hobbit, which I am reading outloud to my children! We are expecting this journey together!

  5. Sseprn says:

    Thank you for sharing Tolkien’s fine observations. In my dark times I will read his wonderful comment about the Blessed Sacrament and always be lifted back up again:

    “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.

    “By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

    “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.

  6. MichaeltDoyle says:

    “[. . . ]that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world”

    Thank you for posting this. What an insightful letter! Tolkien was so expert in the inner workings of language I wonder if he could expand on this argument of the supernatural nature of the Bible based on (1) the type of language it uses and content it expresses versus its contemporary literature counterparts and (2) the content and consistency of philosophical and metaphysical ideas winding between OT and NT.

    These arguments should have an impact on the intellectual who may have been sold a bill of goods that religious folks are simply gullible believers of the “old man in the sky” strawman argument. Such an argument seems like a useful tool for evangelization or at least planting seeds among friends, but I have not seen it deeply examined. (I admit I don’t study as much as I ought.)

  7. Kerry says:

    Malta, yes, beautiful. Do you know of Cristobal de Morales?
    Parce mihi Domine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Agu1k6sZQZw
    Circumduderent me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnvotDuzYZA
    Avoid the several versions of the Parce mihi Domine into which a clarinet player, (whiskey tango foxtrot?) joins in.
    Of your many comments here, CZ-PO1 dittos.

  8. Pingback: J.R.R. Tolkien to his son in the 60’s about the Church and bad or stupid priests |

  9. MaHrad says:

    Perfect timing! I’m reading The Fellowship for the second time right now (they’re currently racing to Moria after being defeated by Caradhras). I unfortunately was exposed to the movies first but wish I had read the books first. They are true literature.

  10. Father Flores says:

    “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach”

  11. Dan says:

    I read this post and recalled another post at Angulus Press about Tolkien and a story from his grandson about attending Mass with him after the liturgical changes. He said; “I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My Grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but My Grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right…”[i]”

    That quote made me smile as I can picture it quite clearly and also feel the anxiety in a grandson sitting next to him. You can read the full article here https://angeluspress.org/blogs/tradition/professor-tolkien-goes-to-mass-what-the-author-and-scholar-saw-that-others-dismissed

    The part of this letter that really struck me and convicts me is “But we should grieve on our Lord’s behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter” It reminds me that I myself am fallen and although I can see the clear fault and complain about the problems in the Church through my distance lens that first and foremost I have to look inside myself and prepare myself yesterdays reading struck me with that as well ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,[f] so that the outside also may become clean.” Mt23:25

  12. Chuck4247 says:

    As good as the Lord of the Rings are, I think that the best story written in English was Tolkien’s creation story in the Silmarillion.

    But yes, Tolkien should be remembered with the likes of Shakespeare and Churchill as one of the greatest wordsmiths to ever be handed the English Language.

  13. teomatteo says:

    A rabbit hole is one thing…. a hobbit hole, that means comfort!
    I spent many hours in my youth over a piece of parchment paper and (India) inking the 5 maps found in the books. When i look at them today (forty years later) I wonder how I ever had the patience to do them.

  14. FN says:

    Reading LOTR aloud to the kiddos right now. It gets better on every reread. I just noticed that the hobbits and ONLY the hobbits—I think—are wont to exclaim “Good heavens!”

  15. Jacob says:

    I assume this letter is to his son Christopher, the editor of “The History of Middle-earth” series. It would be interesting to read his reply to his father.

  16. Lepanto ! says:

    I recall the first time reading the Fellowship to my oldest son at a tender age, who at one point, I don’t recall where in the story, asked, “Dad, did all of this really happen?”. The story is real and the battle is ongoing even to this day or something like that was my reply.

    He has over the past decade since read through the Fellowship 3x, the Hobbit 4x and finally, the Silmarillion. He has a lion heart after Almighty God and seems to be well engaged in love and defense of Holy Mother Church. May it continue life long. Deo Gratias.

  17. excalibur says:

    “A traveling exhibit displays the most thorough collection in years of Tolkien’s wide-ranging creative gifts.”

    Coming to NYC in January.

    The Tolkien exhibition is on display at the Weston Library, Oxfordm until October 28 and will travel to New York’s Morgan Library in January 2019. The companion volume, edited by Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, is available at

    Read more here: https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/08/art-review-maker-of-middle-earth-showcases-tolkien-in-gorgeous-detail/#slide-1

  18. Cafea Fruor says:

    Anyone familiar with the Silmarillion? While I’ll always love LOTR, I was considering taking the Silmarillion on vacation with me this year instead. Thoughts?

  19. teomatteo says:

    Anniversary of Dr Tolkien’s death. May he Rest In Peace. And pray for us.

  20. Semper Gumby says:

    This post and comments are akin to warming one’s chapped hands by the fire on a cold winter’s night. Outside the circling wolves howl, but dare not approach.

    Ok, better stop there or I’ll start chanting the Lord’s Prayer in Sindarin.

    Lepanto: Well done Sir.

    Cafea Fruor: The Silmarillion is like an epic poem written largely in prose. Well worth the read. Chapter 1 will seem familiar with Genesis. The tale of the human Beren and the Elf-maiden Luthien is based on Tolkien and his wife Edith.


  21. KateD says:

    Thank you for sharing the excellent words of wisdom from Tolkien. I am forwarding to people I know whose faith has been shaken or who have fallen away completely in response to the ongoing scandal of pediphile priests.

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