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An eccentric and courageous Church

by Rory Fitzgerald

Irishman Rory Fitzgerald explains why he loves English Catholicism, and why its stand against 'secular orthodoxy' makes it so despised.

The Catholic Church in England is unique. As a visitor from Ireland, the first time I attended Church in England was with an Australian friend. Coming from two countries where Catholics are the largest religious group it was novel to hear the priest speak about the predicament of being a minority religion in a culture that can be dismissive and hostile.

That was about 10 years ago, and the hostility toward Catholicism has increased exponentially since. Before he had even set foot in England, the Pope was threatened with arrest by atheists and was met with astonishing vitriol from the media. However, much of this hostility changed to a surprisingly respectful warmth during the actual visit.

Having married an English girl, and abducted her to Ireland, our regular visits to England have given me a deep affection for the intimate, homely warmth of the English Catholic communities that I have encountered from London to Lancashire.

Amid a sense of closeness, solidarity and real community, a politely exuberant faith bubbles just beneath a surface of English restraint. English Catholicism is multicultural, ethnically comprising Filipinos, Italians, Polish, Irish, English, Africans and South Americans. It is pleasantly eccentric, its adherents ranging from Ann Widdecombe to Tony Blair to Frank Skinner.

People seem to attend Mass not merely because it is the done thing, but because they choose to be there. Few branches of the Church globally exist in circumstances that mirror so closely that of the early Christian church in Rome: a minority in a suspicious overweening state, set amid a variety of other religions and sects. And yet it is also the Christian church taken most seriously by the British media. When the
Telegraph or the Times refers to "the Church" it invariably means the Catholic Church, and not, as you might expect, the established Church of England.

All eyes were on the phenomenon of English Catholicism as the Pope's visit approached. In the face of incidents like the
Times's Caitlin Moran's tweet "The Catholic Church they hate women and f--- kids", Milo Yiannopoulos of The Catholic Herald recently asked an extremely pertinent question: "Why are the media so utterly hostile to the Pope?... why the extraordinary campaign one might even say conspiracy to discredit the Church? Surely it cannot be fully explained by the child abuse crisis. What is going on?"

The Catholic Church, and especially its hierarchy, have given plenty of good reasons to criticise it, but many of its critics' motivations go far beyond a fair-minded exploration of its faults, and far beyond the anger most Catholics share at the abuse cover-up. The real issue at stake goes to the great existential and philosophical split of our times: between those who believe in the spiritual and those who don't; and those who believe in an objective morality and those who think right and wrong are relative, negotiable and arbitrary. This latter view can be called the "
secular orthodoxy," the eminently sensible Henry Porter of the Observer, an atheist, refers to it using this term. This morally relativistic secular orthodoxy is now the dominant ideology in Britain and in Europe.

The Church, brazenly, refuses to submit to its notions of a world where morality is an a la carte affair. Many dislike this impertinent Church because it says to them, politely but very firmly: you are wrong. And it does so with the authority of millennia, and upon the basis of moral thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine. Its buildings are adorned by the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; while the secular orthodoxy's cathedrals are brutalist cubist tower blocks and its art often consists merely of the nihilism of unmade beds, turds and sheep cut in half.

Societies which follow, if inevitably imperfectly, the basic Christian tenets tend to be happy, robust and thriving. Societies which follow the tenets of secular orthodoxy and its attendant materialism, it is becoming increasingly clear, often break down into a morass of despair, immorality and cease to reproduce themselves. This was first demonstrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, but it is now being amply demonstrated by death-spiral birth rates across the rest of secular Europe. Much of modern art, architecture and discourse have developed a patent ugliness, shallowness and disharmony which are inescapable and increasingly undeniable. Perhaps this is why the secular orthodoxy feels threatened. Perhaps this is why so many of its exponents fear and loathe the Catholic Church.

There are real moral debates to be had, especially around issues of homosexuality and married priests, but at some level of their being, many who lead the cheers for the secular orthodoxy know that their dream of a secular utopia is doomed, because it has already failed. And one of the very few institutions on earth willing to propose this in clear terms is the Catholic Church and nobody likes their dreams shattered.

The Church has been deeply flawed and it has done wrong. And yet this flawed vessel carries profound, precious and lasting truths. Indeed, for the most part, it does little more than restate the basic moral tenets held in common by all civilised nations for the past thousand years.

There is also perhaps a sneaking sense of shame behind much of the anti-Catholic sniping. For one of the sad truths about modem Britain is that if any of its great emblematic historic figures returned today, they would despair at what they see. There is an ineffable loss, summed up well by David Cameron's phrase, "
the broken society."

Only 50 years ago Britain was widely admired as one of the most gentle, civilised, safe and harmonious societies in the world. This civilisation was underpinned by the very Christian-derived values that today are so often attacked and mocked.

Given Britain's historic opposition to Roman Catholicism it is perhaps ironic that the Roman Church, perhaps more than almost any British institution, vociferously defends these values. Yet many of these once-cherished principles now stand in jeopardy.

The British Catholic Church may well be the last, best hope for traditional British values. Perhaps that is why it is so despised.

Copyright ©
The Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the 1st October 2010 issue of The Catholic Herald and is reproduced with permission.

Version: 19th October 2012

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