The Catholics: The Church and its people in Britain and Ireland, from the Reformation to the present day
Chatto & Windus £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THIS book sets out to give a panoramic overview of the Roman Catholic Church and its people in Britain and Ireland from the time of Henry VIII to the present day. As a political account, it succeeds admirably. The author writes with authority, based both on his experience of life gleaned as a well-respected Labour politician, and upon a quirk of fate: after the death of his father, Frederick, Hattersley discovered he had been a Roman Catholic priest before he eloped with Roy’s mother and was laicised and subsequently excommunicated.
In a curious way, Hattersley has a personal investment in this narrative: in so far as he is telling his own story, he engages with his material and shares his enthusiasm with the reader. But equally he is detached: he has no interest in covering up scandals or selling a party line. The engaged outsider becomes a compelling biographer, at once intrigued and underwhelmed by his subject-matter. He is fascinated by the people whose religious story he narrates, though he professes to having little understanding of faith.
The word “biographer” can be used advisedly, as Hattersley presents the reader with a timeline peopled by characters as diverse as John Fisher and Thomas More; Wiseman and Newman; Hopkins, Greene, and Waugh: for Hattersley, these are the Church. The observant reader will instantly recognise one thing: these are all men, and the story narrated is essentially that of the public face of British Catholicism.
We learn about the Reformation, the tug of opposing loyalties under the Stuarts, Catholic emancipation, the Gordon Riots, and a host of other critical events, right up to the present day, with the discovery of clerical abuse of children and the effects of Polish workers’ influx on indigenous congregations. Despite over-simplifications and errors of fact and emphasis, the pace is engaging.
The author excels at the balancing act of examining the influence of the British political élite and that of the Roman hierarchy. He drills down to investigate what led to the rise and fall of his leading players, or decisions about educational provision, or tricky events in the north of Ireland. He had access to the archives both of the Venerabile — the English College in Rome — and those of the dioceses of Westminster and Birmingham, and presents material that has not previously seen the light of day.
The narrative is detailed, and Hattersley describes it as a series of adventure stories that owe their power and passion to the “courage and certainty” of the faithful who for six centuries held on to their Catholic identity, despite, in his own words, being more “sinned against than sinning”.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.