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Beneath the 'Catholic imagination'

03 August 2012

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 orientation.

"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.

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