Beneath the 'Catholic imagination'
The grace of artists makes up for the prejudices of bishops,
says Paul Vallely
AFTER the almost universal acclaim for the opening ceremony of
the London Olympics, I was bemused to find a small group of
dissidents on the internet bemoaning the fact that the event had
failed to acknowledge the Christian heritage of these isles.
It had seemed to me to be shot through with a profoundly
religious vision of which the two hymns - three, if you count
"Jerusalem" - were only the explicit salients in a ritual that was
almost liturgical, in its invocations, reflective silence, and
powerful symbolic use of fire, darkness, and light, and the angelic
dove-man rising slowly to heaven.
So I was not surprised to hear the
next day that the writer behind the ceremony was Frank Cottrell
Boyce, a man who has made a career of articulating his Roman
Catholic faith in ways that are deeply imaginative, and often
unexpected. On the Today programme the next morning, there
was a breadth and warmth to his vision, which brought to mind the
old penny-catechism definition of a sacrament as "an outward sign
of inward grace".
The ceremony's director, the
film-maker Danny Boyle, who was brought up in the same tradition,
had said in his introduction in the Olympic brochure: "We can build
Jerusalem, and it will be for everyone." Of that, Mr Cottrell Boyce
added: "He'll hate me for saying this, but he has a very Catholic
sense that, yes, this is a fallen world, but you can find grace and
beauty in its darkest corners."
The American sociologist and priest Fr
Andrew Greeley has written of how what he calls the "Catholic
imagination" sees God disclosed in and through creation, without
needing to making the divine explicit. It is why sacramentality and
the mystical are such an important part of Catholic tradition. The
dialectic Protestant mindset, in contrast, wants straighter lines
made from the crooked timber of humanity, and leans more to
transcendence than to immanence.
The Catholic imagination is therefore
like an iceberg, in which the most important things remain out of
sight. There can be a terrible downside to this, as was
demonstrated last week in the claim by the Archbishop-elect of
Glasgow, the Rt Revd Philip Tartaglia, that the death of the
44-year-old Scots MP David Cairns was somehow related to his sexual
"If what I have heard is true about
the relationship between physical and mental health of gay men, if
it is true, then society has been very quiet about it," Bishop
Tartaglia said, and concluded: "You seem to hear so many stories
about this kind of thing. But society won't address it."
"If what I have heard is true" is not
a worthy basis for a public pronouncement by a national church
leader on a man's death, which was caused by an infected pancreatic
tract unrelated to sexual behaviour. Hearsay, based on a
discredited psychological study or outdated figures from the early
days of the AIDS epidemic, is bad enough. To make unsupported
insinuations about an individual on the basis of "stories about
this kind of thing" amounts to a slur as bad as that of the
infamous Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir about the death of
another gay man, the singer Stephen Gately.
For an archbishop-elect to deal in
such currency betrays something deeper in his own Catholic
imagination, where ignorance seems wilfully embraced if it helps
the Church to oppose the Scottish government's plans to permit gay
marriage. Statements such as his - as with the earlier suggestion
from a Roman cardinal that condoms naturally contain tiny holes in
the latex - explains why so many dismiss the Roman Catholic
Church's objections as irrational and bigoted.
It is as well that we have the grace,
compassion, wit, and generous vision of artists to compensate for
the crabbed, visceral prejudices of archbishops.