I haven’t converted: this isn’t my article – that’s why I use the quote marks. I just happened to come across two complementary pieces recently, one entitled “Why I am not a Catholic”, the other “Why I am a Catholic”. They are both interesting. So let me post them one after the other as a two-parter.
The first is by Andrew Brown, editor of the Faith section of the Guardian’s Comment is free. What makes this piece interesting is that Brown is not anti-Catholic, in fact he’s open to the Catholic point of view, and willing to stick his neck out when he thinks that the Catholic Church is being maligned or misrepresented. And on this occasion he’s curious enough about his relationship to Catholicism to reflect on why he isn’t Catholic himself.
Steve Hepburn asked in a previous thread why I am not a Roman Catholic. I know it’s a tease, but it deserves an answer anyway. The first reason is that I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in the historical truth of the gospel stories, and I think that if I were a Christian I ought to do so. I don’t claim that all Christians should. But if there were a God who had a plan for me, I feel that plan should require me to care about the kind of truths that journalists can in principle establish.
But if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic one. I don’t know whether it is papal fallibility or papal infallibility that puts me off more. The crimes of the institution have sometimes been monstrous, and so – always – have its pretensions been. But I can’t believe that either is a mark of supernatural distinction. There are perfectly natural and historical explanations for both.
It’s not that I believe the church is worse than other large and idealist international institutions. But it’s not notably better, either. To believe that it is somehow essential to the salvation of the world, and indeed part of the purpose for which the universe is created, would be a cause for absolute despair.
Not that this argument would upset Catholics. After all, they want to be playing at the biggest table of all. There is a streak of snobbery and smarm in English Catholicism which is almost entirely rebarbative. I say “almost entirely” because I am softened by the very sympathetic treatment of the Catholic officer classes in Luke Jennings’s Blood Knots, a memoir which is not really about fishing. But when these people are not in fact army officers risking their lives but lawyers, diplomats, or journalists, I shudder away from them.
The best reason, I suppose, is that put by the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe in an article in the Tablet at the height of the child abuse scandals. Being a Roman Catholic, he said, made him part of 800 years of continuous thought and argument, all the way back to Thomas Aquinas. That’s a powerful point. I believe that all civilisation is a process of extending tradition by argument, and that often our arguments are wrong, and the tradition is right. But taking a tradition very seriously is not the same as conceding that it is right.
At the moment, Catholic sexual teaching is like a broken computer program. It needs to be rewritten from scratch in a better language. But Catholic social teaching, and the attempts to produce an economics centred around the needs of humans, rather than of money, look like the only thought-through alternatives to unbridled market capitalism – and certainly the only ones which have a chance of widespread popular support.
But still, I remain a thoroughly Protestant atheist. The tradition within which I would rather argue is that of Thomas Cranmer. This isn’t entirely a matter of intellectual preference. The bleak iron language of the prayer book’s funeral service seems to me more true, plainer and more frightening than all of the painted devils in baroque basilicas around the world.
So I’m not a Catholic; I don’t believe what they are supposed to believe, and I don’t want to become one. But none of this liberates me from the obligation to be fair to them and I try to discharge it here.
Every paragraph cries out for comment. But today I’ve only got time to post.