The English are a funny bunch and particularly funny in their attitudes to catholics. I found an article in the Independent which struck me as bizarre. I have commented on bits of it because it’s my blog and I can. You can read the whole thing here, should you so wish. It is, inevitably, inspired by Tony Blair’s conversion which has flummoxed the nation.
“In 2006, it was revealed that Father Seed had regularly been celebrating Mass at 10 Downing Street for cradle-Catholic Cherie Blair and the couple’s four Catholic-educated children. Did Tony attend too? Father Seed looks surprised that I even need to ask: “Of course.””
Well, yes, because I would have thought that it would be rude not to, particularly if it was a family mass. For me, it would be odd, if he hadn’t gone along. You know when he married Cherie, he promised to bring any children up Catholic. That’s what we’re like, us Catholics, we think of everything. And isn’t the expression “cradle catholic” hilarious and faintly derogatory? Almost implying she became a catholic before she knew any better and had she been older and wiser she certainly wouldn’t have done it, not like Tony. I’m forced to point out that, by rights, their children should be “cradle-catholics” as well and not just catholic educated. Where will it all end? Rome will invade.
“Father Seed, though, is a friar, a member of a religious order that is part of the Franciscan family. So, while the Jesuits were founded as a quasi-military religious order to reconvert Europe after the Reformation, the Franciscans have an older, less aggressive mandate: to support those in need. That is how the man sitting opposite me sees his work: helping people through a spiritual crisis. Whether or not they end up converting is immaterial. “We are all Christians. And that’s that. Therefore the pilgrimage we make is a movement of Christ, and if it is an authentic movement, we should be joyful about people becoming Catholic or Anglican or Methodist.””
Of course, for us, the Jesuits are the intellectuals of the Church, though conceding their role in the counter-reformation, for me the Jesuits say smart, smart, smart not agressive, agressive, agressive. You know, we send money to the missions, you know we actually are supposed to want to convert everyone, even the nice Franciscans.
“So he started going to say Mass in their flat above Number 11 Downing Street. Father Seed is eager to portray this special treatment not as a privilege, but as a kind of torture. “Mrs Blair” – he never uses their first names – “absolutely hated it. She hated not being able to go to Mass with everyone else.”
I absolutely believe this. Part of the nice thing about going to Mass is that sense of Catholic community and though I never appreciated it when I was younger, I do now. Mass at home is nice from time to time for a special occasion. All the time, and they must have felt slightly cut off.
“For some in the press,” he continues, “it seems that Mr Blair’s reception came in the end as a shock. Though there was no reason why it should. I suppose it is the phenomenon that Catholicism is seen as seriously naughty.”
It is an odd choice of words. Catholicism is more traditionally seen as rather upright, moral and – at least in matters sexual – not in the least bit “naughty”. Only when you are married, straight, in the missionary position, not using a condom and want to conceive a baby is about as naughty as it gets.
Have to say that I am with the journalist here but I get what the priest says as well. To the English, Catholicism seems to be all about exotic foreigners, smells and bells, ceremonies and rites and not children running up and down the aisle inadequately restrained by mortified parents.
“I was asked to preach in the Tower of London,” Father Seed counters, “on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. I think I was the first Catholic priest to get in – and get out.” He has a nervous laugh. “And there is something about that; that Catholics were once about to blow up Parliament. There is still something mysterious and naughty about us. It is to our advantage. Catholics in this country are, in reality, a fairly conformist group, but we are still seen as nonconformist. Had Mr Blair become a Methodist, for example, I don’t think there would have been the same reaction.”
I think that this must all relate back to the whole issue of loyalty to Rome; although it is extraordinary that this should still be an issue as it is many centuries since Rome has been a temporal power, though I can see how it could have been an issue, say around the time of the gunpowder plot. Lytton Strachey’s “Eminent Victorians” is very good on the 1870 Vatican Council and the impact the declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility had on the English [if memory serves something like – they’ve gone too far this time]. Would like to quote “Eminent Victorians” to add glamour to the text but cannot find it. Am nevertheless pleased that I have, in the sentence before last given the impression that I have read several books on the 1870 Council which, unfortunately, we all know, is far from the truth.*
“The question of Blair’s timing, though, remains interesting. By leaving it until he had left office, there was a sense that Tony Blair was either embarrassed by his decision, or regarded it as improper for a Catholic to be prime minister. Hardly evidence that Catholics are conformist? “I don’t think it is that,” Father Seed corrects. “There are some good reasons why he did it when he did it, but they are more private. But the time was right. If it had happened while he was in office, it would have caused him more difficulty, that blurring of the public and the private. The same would be true if it had been immediately after he left office. By waiting, it was very dignified, very correct, very quiet. No announcement.” Was he there at the private ceremony? “I can’t say,” he replies. I take it as a yes.”
The timing is interesting though, isn’t it? Was Britain not ready for a Catholic Prime Minister or was it just a matter of personal conscience for Tony Blair. It seems a little unfair to speculate but my feeling is that a practising Catholic would have a lot more difficulty in winning the affection and the votes of the English than an Anglican who went to services a couple of times a year. It is the exact opposite to America where you must parade your religion or risk electoral suicide. Do you think that there might be a middle ground?
* Found the whole of “Eminent Victorians” on line here.
Have a look at this quote:
“He [some minor bit character, never mind] was now engaged in fluttering like a moth round the Council, and in writing long letters to Mr. Gladstone, impressing upon him the gravity of the situation, and urging him to bring his influence to bear. If the Dogma [of papal infallibility] were carried, he declared, no man who accepted it could remain a loyal subject, and Catholics would everywhere become “irredeemable enemies of civil and religious liberty.” In these circumstances, was it not plainly incumbent upon the English Government, involved as it was with the powerful Roman Catholic forces in Ireland, to intervene? … There was a semi-official agent of the English Government in Rome, Mr. Odo Russell, and round him Manning set to work to spin his spider’s web of delicate and clinging diplomacy. Preliminary politenesses were followed by long walks upon the Pincio, and the gradual interchange of more and more important and confidential communications. Soon poor Mr. Russell was little better than a fly buzzing in gossamer. And Manning was careful to see that he buzzed on the right note. In his despatches to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, Mr. Russell explained in detail the true nature of the Council, that it was merely a meeting of a few Roman Catholic prelates to discuss some internal matters of Church discipline, that it had no political significance whatever, that the question of Infallibility, about which there had been so much random talk, was a purely theological question, and that, whatever decision might be come to upon the subject, the position of Roman Catholics throughout the world would remain unchanged. Whether the effect of these affirmations upon Lord Clarendon was as great as Manning supposed, is somewhat doubtful; but it is at any rate certain that Mr. Gladstone failed to carry the Cabinet with him; and when at last a proposal was definitely made that the English Government should invite the Powers of Europe to intervene at the Vatican, it was rejected.”