I was giving a lecture to the London Newman Association last night. Its subtitle was “English Catholicism: 1951-2008”. The year span might sound oddly precise, and you might wonder what seminal events occurred at those markers. The answer is fairly banal, I’m afraid. One was the year in which I was born, the other is the one that I have now reached. There was, you will gather, something peculiarly ad hominem about my theme, or at least the shape of it.
The handful of readers who know me personally may have been surprised to see me write last week, in my musings on the Embryology Bill, that I was “speaking as a Roman Catholic”. They are not words that would pass my lips. Indeed, in the Newman lecture, I spent ten times the length of this column explaining why I was not a Roman Catholic, but an English one.
I understand the difficulty of the Church Times sub-editor who inserted the word “Roman” before “Catholic” in my article last week. This being an Anglican organ, it needs to reflect the Elizabethan Settlement, which yoked Catholics (or, should I say, Anglo-Catholics) with Protestants, in what has remained since a gloriously unstable steady state, to borrow a scientific term. A Catholic here must be, by default, a member of that tendency within the Church of England, and the other lot need “Roman” bolting on as a prefix.
Actually, I was never a Roman Catholic, so much, as a child, as an Irish one. I did not realise it at the time, of course. We just referred to ourselves as Catholic, and it was not until many years later, when I first began to go to Ireland as a young reporter, that I discovered how culturally Irish was my English upbringing.
That was true of our social behaviour. Family gatherings, only half-remembered from the haze of early boyhood, funerals, birthdays, parties — all would end up with the grown-ups placing dining chairs around the edge of the room in a big circle, and singing what I later learned were Irish songs.
It was true of our religion, too, which was resplendent with May processions, novenas, First Fridays, Benediction, the rosary, and all the other practices so beloved of the clergymen of my youth, some three-quarters of whom had come over from Ireland to serve the immigrant Irish steelworkers and their families in enclaves such as my home town of Middlesbrough — much as imams from Pakistan still come to the British Muslim community today. But then came the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which were used by what had become an emerging English Catholic middle class, to, as it were, strip the Church of its Irish devotional style.
What I attempted to chart in my lecture was the way that Catholicism then rediscovered an Englishness that became slightly suspicious of Rome rather than unquestioningly loyal to it. It meant that the gospel rather than the Vatican was re-established as our prime focus. That was good for both Catholics (English rather than Roman, I would insist), and it was also good for Christianity in general, in its ecumenical struggle against a secular culture increasingly dominated by utilitarianism, selfish materialism, and consumer hedonism.
Sadly, since 9/11, the rise of the fearful new atheism, and the Regensburg address (which revealed a Pope for whom doctrinal clarity is more important than social peace), a tide has now turned in the English hierarchy that is diminishing the impact of Catholic thinking on the mainstream of British society. This takes us back to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. But that must be a story for another day.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.