English Catholicism, 1951-2008

(This is Neil.) I trust that most of our readers have been spending time with the Pope’s homilies, addresses, discourses, and greetings (they can easily be found on the Whispers in the Loggia blog here).

Here, I would like to draw your attention to the 2008 London Newman Lecture, delivered by the journalist Paul Vallely on April 3rd, entitled “On Being an English Catholic: from minority to mainstream – and back again?” The interesting lecture is subtitled “English Catholicism 1951-2008” because it is autobiographical.  

Paul Vallely’s account of a Catholic childhood in Middlesbrough will sound familiar to many readers. He would only discover much later just how “culturally Irish” was his upbringing. The town’s priests were so exclusively from Ireland that when an English priest arrived as curate, a female parishioner worried, “I think they’ve sent us an Anglican vicar by mistake.” Vallely’s recollections of Catholic dogma are marked by both fascination and fear: “Schoolboy folklore had it that the host would burn your tongue if you had committed a sin since you had been to Confession.” And Catholic life was estranged from the majority Protestant culture, which “created among us an interplay of feelings of simultaneous inferiority and superiority.”

Anglicanism was “the Other”:

These were times when the monk who was later to become Cardinal Basil Hume was forbidden from joining in with the Lord’s Prayer at the funeral of his own father, because his father was a Scottish Protestant and it was what in those days we called a “non-Catholic” service – everything else being defined only in terms of its reference to what was normative for us.

As we will see, “the monk who was later to become Cardinal Basil Hume” will be the hero of this lecture. Vallely then recounts how this “self-contained, self-sufficient community” developed a “liberal” Catholicism. In part this was because of the Second Vatican Council. It seems as though ecumenism – through once unthinkable events such as the Queen receiving Pope John Paul II at Buckingham Palace in 1982 and later referring to Cardinal Hume as “my cardinal” – allowed the Catholic Church to see itself as part of mainstream English society. The Catholic Church could stand alongside the Church of England, once “the Other,” in an “ecumenical struggle against a secular culture increasingly dominated by a consumerist materialism.” This liberal Catholicism was exemplified by Cardinal Hume, a man of no “divided allegiance.”

But this liberal English Catholicism also developed from the stress that Catholic schools placed on “systematic thought,” not “emotional subjectivism.” “We were schooled to feel at ease with the symbolic and the sacramental but the language was overwhelmingly rationalistic.” Vallely and his contemporaries were taught without restriction to embrace classical theology – to see God as “the power of Being itself” instead of the “invisible being” that would be later attacked by Richard Dawkins. Their faith wasn’t something frozen and “fixed.” “It was something which moved like a tide, lapping upon the shores of stories, structure and institutions, of questions and searchings for consistency and identity, and mystical reachings after what cannot be put into words.” Vallely values theological depth as the antidote to fundamentalism.

But what has happened since? Vallely suggests that the aforementioned “consumerist materialism” has, ironically, caused the growth of fundamentalism. The consumerist values of utilitarianism, materialism, and hedonism create a “chaotic and dangerous universe,” and, consequently, “the human need to impose order” leads “threatened” men and women to embrace ever more extreme solutions in reaction. Furthermore, the perception of the common good has been attenuated by an increasing “focus on individuals and their freedom” – a “rights discourse” in which different groups compete for “recognition.” And, then, 9/11 happened, leading to an “aggressive secularism … characterized by a vituperative determination to attack, deride or belittle religion at every turn.”

What might be the solution to these dilemmas? Regarding the Islamic fundamentalism that has provoked much of the “aggressive secularism,” Vallely seems to suggest that Islam must travel down something analogous to the path of liberal Catholicism. The leader of the 7/7 suicide bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was alienated from both his parents’ Pakistani traditions and the surrounding English culture. He became a man of real “divided allegiance,” trapped in an “identity crisis” that was resolved by a violent Islamism, not a Cardinal Hume. Furthermore, Khan was too theologically ignorant to reject “bad religion.” Vallely makes a point of mentioning that all four of the London bombers had attended secularized state schools, not anything like the Marist College that educated Vallely in “systematic thought.”

Regarding “rights discourse,” Vallely says that the Church must contribute to the common good by spreading Catholic values “through our pluralist society” (my emphasis) by seeking “mutual understanding.” His concern is that the Church will instead intensify “rights discourse” by simply (and loudly) claiming its rights as a persecuted minority in an increasingly fragmented public sphere.

He has one positive example and one negative example of Catholic interaction with society. The success is regarding faith schools. The government, after 9/11, proposed a quota for pupils of a different faith (or none) in all new faith schools, with hints that it might be retroactively applied as well. The Church, Vallely writes, reacted successfully by using two things. First, they had rather good arguments, mainly that faith schools created social cohesion through their social teachings, produced excellent students, and contained a good deal of racial and economic diversity. Second, the bishops were able to use political leverage as “tens of thousands of ordinary Catholics” grasped the danger of dilution in the ethos of their schools and wrote to their representatives.

The failure is regarding gay adoption. As many of our readers will know, by the end of 2007, the government refused to allow Catholic adoption agencies to deny  their services to gay couples, because, as one Labour MP said, “We don’t want to live in a society where people can say, ‘I don’t like blacks and so they have to travel on the back of a bus.’” The Church, says Vallely, failed to deploy good arguments in response. The bishops couldn’t conclusively argue that the “best interests of the child” were served by leaving it in foster care as opposed to with a lesbian couple. Archbishop Vincent Nichols on Newsnight couldn’t answer Jeremy Paxman’s question, “Why will Church adoption agencies allow a single gay to adopt but not a gay couple?” Furthermore, the bishops couldn’t convince the same “tens of thousands of ordinary Catholics” who had supported faith schools to write to their MPs about this issue, something that “they should have foreseen.” Unable to resist the state and unable to find a “behind-the-scenes pragmatic accommodation,” the Church could only resort to gestures that seemed like “moral blackmail” (closing the adoption agencies altogether) or by voicing the “rights discourse” of an aggrieved minority outside of the mainstream that desires only protection. “We Catholic don’t demand special privileges, but we do demand our rights,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in a lecture that invoked the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Paul Vallely wants a return to the now-threatened “Hume Dispensation”: “Catholics have gone through a process in which it is possible to hold onto a distinct religious identity, with distinctive values, and yet become completely British, and in doing so to bring our values to bear influentially on the mainstream of society.”

Is this possible? Surely, any account of the last fifty years also has to take the decline of Catholic (and Anglican) practice into account: see here. Furthermore, much of Vallely’s lecture needs a degree of expansion (or at least documentation). But do tell me what you think.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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