'Man of sacristy' walks in shadow of John Paul II

 

ANALYSIS:Benedict's British visit should seek inspiration from the engaged spirit of Cardinal Newman, writes EAMON DUFFY

THE STATE visit this month of a reigning pope to Britain is a historically charged event, for Britain is officially, even constitutionally, anti-Catholic. The Church of England was called into being by Henry VIII to embody the claim that “the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm”. The Act of Settlement of 1701, still in force, excludes “for ever” from the succession to the throne not merely any Roman Catholic, but anyone married to a Roman Catholic.

Till relatively recently, Guy Fawkes Day celebrations of the nation’s deliverance from “Gunpowder Treason” might include the burning of the pope in effigy, a practice that continues every November 5th in the south coast town of Lewes. Catholics were for centuries the hated other, against whom a single national identity might be forged for the disparate Protestant peoples of the archipelago: Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, as the British national anthem has it (in a verse usually tactfully omitted nowadays).

That demonisation was assisted in Victorian England by the flooding of the English, Scottish and Welsh Catholic communities by hordes of Irish immigrants. Catholicism now looked literally as well as notionally “foreign” – dirty, disease-ridden and disloyal, as well as religiously benighted. Time, social mobility and, not least, the atrophying of the Protestant convictions that once fuelled anti-Catholicism, have changed all that. Catholics have colonised the establishment.

The English Catholic community has always encompassed a core of ancient families – the “Brideshead” phenomenon. It now includes a newer kind of elite, represented by a millionaire ex-prime minister, and the current director general of the BBC. During the last quarter of the 20th century, the cardinal archbishop of Westminster was an aristocratic ex-public school housemaster, whose brother-in-law was secretary to the cabinet, and whom the queen liked to call “my cardinal”.

The papal state visit is remarkable nonetheless, not least because the invitation to make it was issued by a prime minister who is also the son of a minister of the Kirk of Scotland.

Mr Brown’s motives are not altogether clear. He may in part have been seeking to mend political fences. English, Welsh and Scottish working-class Catholics have traditionally voted Labour, an allegiance weakened in the long term by the rise of the Catholic middle classes, but more ominously by recent frictions between the Catholic hierarchy and New Labour over “life” issues, education policy, and the impact on Catholic social and adoption agencies of what the church sees as doctrinaire equal rights legislation.

The invitation to the pope may therefore have been intended as an olive branch. But Brown’s invitation is more likely to have sprung from a recognition of the pope’s standing as leader of the world’s largest religious collective, encompassing more than a billion people, most of them in the developing world. He is aware, too, of the church’s unique role as a powerful international pressure group for human rights and development issues, and the world’s largest and most diversified humanitarian agency.

If so, not everyone in Britain shares that perception. The English, Scottish and Welsh Catholic bishops have so far weathered the storm over clerical abuse better than their beleaguered Irish counterparts, but in Britain as elsewhere, the church’s moral credibility has nonetheless taken a battering. An often rancorous hostility to Catholicism is becoming fashionable again among the British intelligentsia, and is an increasingly noticeable feature of opinion-forming journalism.

Irresponsibly casual condemnations of priests en bloc as a danger to children, or claims that the pope’s opposition to condoms as a preventative against Aids makes him a mass murderer, surface routinely, and have replaced evocations of the Armada or Gunpowder Treason as the ritual constituents of a resurgent no-popery.

At the sillier end of the spectrum, there have been calls for the arrest of the pope as soon as he sets foot on British soil, and there have been rumblings in the letters pages that taxpayers must foot the security bill for protecting a religious leader whose teachings are so much at odds with the dominant mores of modern Britain.

British Catholics are keen to make the pope welcome, but they are perhaps apprehensive about just how successfully Benedict will address this delicate situation, not least in his speech to representatives of “civic society” in Westminster Hall. Even among the faithful, Benedict’s coming has elicited neither the widespread enthusiasm nor (on present indications) the vast and admiring crowds that marked the visit of his charismatic Polish predecessor in 1982.

John Paul II was manifestly a giant on the world stage, his life story one of titanic struggle against 20th century Europe’s two great tyrannies, he himself a key player in the collapse of the Soviet empire. His social and moral views elicited no more enthusiasm from the secular world than those of Joseph Ratzinger, but his craggy integrity, mesmeric personal presence and mastery of crowds made him formidable even to those who rejected his religion. By contrast, Pope Benedict is an altogether smaller figure, a man of the sacristy and the lecture room.

Kindlier, probably more intelligent and certainly a better theologian than his predecessor, he is also shyer, more anxious, less willing to engage with a culture which he perceives as in denial of its Christian roots, and on a disastrous slide into corrosive moral relativism. Much in Benedicts’s analysis of the malaise of western society will strike a chord with thoughtful Christians. But the pope has repeatedly shown himself maladroit and badly advised in his attempts to promote his views. An academic to the toes of his red papal slippers, he has poor antennae for the likely public perception of his actions and utterances. That was made clear by the hostile reaction to his Regensburg remarks on Islam, and, more recently, by his disastrous though doubtless well-intentioned conciliatory gestures to the holocaust-denying Lefebvrist rebel Bishop Richard Williamson.

The reign of Papa Ratzinger has not ushered in the era of ferocious reaction many feared when he was elected, but his own deep reservations about many aspects not only of the modern world but of the modern church have become increasingly plain. An ongoing Vatican campaign to downplay the novel and reformist dimensions of the second Vatican Council, and to emphasise continuities with the attitudes and ideas of the age of Pius XII , appears to have his support. His decision in 2007, in the teeth of opposition from most of the world’s bishops, to permit the free use of the old unreformed Latin Mass, seems another straw in the same wind.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the religious high point of the pope’s visit is to be the beatification in Birmingham of the Victorian intellectual, writer and theologian, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman, who, among other distinctions, served in the 1850s as first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, in fact had two careers, both of them momentous.

Till 1845, he was the leader of the Oxford Movement, which transformed the Church of England by re-establishing a profoundly sacramental understanding of Christianity within it. And after 1845, when he became a Catholic, Newman went on to formulate a series of brilliantly original theological insights which over the next century would help transform Catholic theology, anticipating some of the key themes of Vatican II.

Though he changed churches halfway through his life, Newman was a profoundly consistent thinker. Most of the key ideas he developed as a Catholic had their roots in his Anglican preaching and writing. He retained deep and enduring friendships with Anglicans. His most widely read book, the Apologia pro Vita Sua, one of the greatest of all religious autobiographies, was written 20 years after his conversion, but focused almost exclusively on his Anglican years. His beatification is therefore the ratification of a deeply and distinctively English sensibility and theological method. It is an ecumenical gesture in itself, at a time when relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church are sorely in need of such gestures.

Pope Paul VI declined to advance Newman’s beatification, because he thought him a depressive who “had no joy”. By contrast, the present pope is a professed admirer who has taken a personal interest in Newman’s cause. At one level, it is not hard to see why. Like Pope Benedict, Newman devoted much intellectual energy to a sustained critique of the drift towards moral and religious relativism which he saw as the main intellectual danger of his day. An ardent believer in the objective reality of revelation and the claims of an informed conscience, he was by his own account a dedicated enemy of “liberalism”.

Yet labels can be deceptive. In terms of the inner politics of contemporary Catholicism, Newman himself was a liberal, and his vision of a healthy church was in many respects the antithesis of Pope Benedict’s. Though punctiliously loyal to the papacy, Newman was a vocal opponent of the definition of papal infallibility in 1870, which he thought unnecessary and a burden to consciences. He denounced the “aggressive and insolent faction” of Ultramontaneswho centralised Catholicism too much on Rome.

He deplored clericalism, worked to create an educated and active laity, and argued for greater freedom for theology within the church.

“Truth,” he wrote, “is wrought out by many minds, working together freely.” He detested, and himself suffered from, trigger-happy dogmatists who tried to pre-empt intellectual exploration by invoking pat formulae and ecclesiastical denunciations. Structures of authority gave the church strength, he conceded, but did not give it life: “We are not born of bones and muscle.” Truth was objective, but had to be sought out by the heart and conscience as well as by the head, and he took as his motto as a cardinal the phrase of St Francis de Sales, “Heart speaks to heart.”

Like Pope Benedict, Newman believed that British society was in danger of cutting itself adrift from the Christian values that had given Europe and the West their distinctive religious, moral and aesthetic character. But he also believed the slide into relativism would not be halted by mere denunciation. If Christian values were to survive and prevail, they must commend themselves by their intrinsic power and attractiveness. Modern materialism, he wrote, must be met “not by refutation so much as by a powerful counter-argument . . . overcoming error not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”.

When Pope Benedict addresses British “civil society” in Westminster Hall on September 17th, he will stand on or near the spot on which Thomas More was tried and condemned. More’s defiant declaration to his judges that, “I am not bound, my lords, to conform my conscience to the council of one realm, against the general council of Christendom . . . these thousand years” is an appropriate text for a pope intensely conscious of the potential for offence in his deeply counter-cultural message.

But many who wish both him and his message well will also want him to take his lead from the man whom he is to declare blessed two days later, and concentrate not on denunciation but on commending the Christian “antagonist truth” by its inherent hopefulness and humanity.


Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.