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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2008

Catholics in Britain Today:
Heirs to the Extraordinary

by Joanna Bogle

Author’s Note: This article is based on a talk I was invited to give to a London parish as part of its parish mission.

There is a commonly accepted idea in Britain today that religion should be something private, especially if that religion is Catholic. It’s quite all right to be a Catholic, and people can even be rather nice about it: they like to know that it’s all going on, with churches, and First Communions with white dresses, and the pope in Rome, candles and singing and — who knows? — perhaps a bit more Latin coming back and so on. But they don’t want it to influence public life in any way, or even for it to influence the lives of Catholics to any great degree when they are outside their churches.

People see Catholicism as something that can be “switched on” from time to time. “Oh yes, Joanna’s a Catholic” they will say, maybe adding “Actually, I’ve got quite a lot of Catholic friends”. But they might add with evident relief, “Mind you, they aren’t all keen Catholics — I mean, they don’t, you know, go along with the pope on everything....” And often there’s a sub-text: Catholics can go to Mass every Sunday if they like, and we’d rather like it if they did old-fashioned things like chant in Latin or have mysterious ceremonies with processions and candles, but the thing that’s really annoying is when they support traditional Catholic teachings on embarrassing things like sex, relationships, the sanctity of life, affirming marriage as only between a man and a woman and as lifelong.

In response to this, it’s very tempting for us as Catholics to adopt an embarrassed tribalism. It’s convenient, and safe, to pretend that the Church is a sort of splendid club, into which one is admitted chiefly by birth into a Catholic family, with odd rules — many of which its members are happy to ignore or assume could one day be changed — and some lovely quirky traditions, all making an agreeable structure through which to celebrate some of the milestones of life. And part of the deal is to push the notion that this club isn’t for everyone, that it doesn’t make any universal claims.

But of course the Church is not like that at all. It is not something extra that can be added on to the side of one’s life. It is not a private club. It is not something that can be kept in one, rather private, compartment, of life — whether one’s own life or the public life of the whole community.

The Catholic Church is centered on the great reality that God became man: that He leapt from heaven to join in our common life. In Jesus Christ, God took human flesh: He lived among us, He died on a cross to seal our relationship with God and offer us eternal life with Him in Heaven, He rose from the dead and showed the truth of that promise. He founded a Church, centered on twelve whom He chose as His Apostles, and through this Church He is still with us. Christ appointed Peter as the leader among the Apostles, and the successor of Saint Peter is today in Rome.

In Britain, we have specific historical reasons for having to think this out, and to make the decision to be a Catholic. Today, living in an ordinary suburb or town, where we can gather in a Catholic church that is a normal part of the local community, we are nevertheless heirs to something extraordinary. For nearly 400 years, Catholicism was illegal in our country: priests were hunted down and executed as traitors, convents and monasteries had all been closed. Catholics had to attend Mass secretly. There were savage laws against the Church, and these were implemented with considerable cruelty.

When things changed, and the Catholic Faith revived in England in the 19th century, something special had been given to us: the heritage of knowing what it means to be a Catholic and to make a decision for the Church. In Britain, because of this extraordinary history, we are Catholic for a reason. We cannot — even though we may be tempted to do so — simply suggest to ourselves or to anyone else that membership of the Church is membership of a tribal club or something that can just drift around on the edges of our lives.

One annoying reality — and one that is shown by history — is that we cannot always choose the particular topics or aspects of our Catholic Faith about which we will need to make a stand, or in which we will be obliged to take a particular interest, at any given time.

In the not-very-distant past, the issues on which Catholics repeatedly had to explain and defend themselves were connected with sacramental doctrines or with Church history. It must have been infuriating for Saint Thomas More to have to defend the specific point about the successor of Saint Peter having real authority — even authority over a king.

People had always understood this, and seen it as part of the essence of Christ’s saving work, a sign of the universality of His message and the deep love that He had for all men, so that they would not be left without a point of reference, a sure guide to show the way ahead. Now, quite suddenly, under Henry VIII, all this was being challenged and had to be taught anew. And with it came, fairly quickly, challenges about the Mass and the Sacraments, about the nature of the priesthood and about communion with the wider Church, and where that Church was to be found.

It was even harder for those who came after him, at the height of the Elizabethan persecutions of Catholics that followed. At a time when nationalistic emotions were being warmly fanned, and a whole new spirit of nationhood was being fostered, Catholic priests — who, to a man, loved their country and honored its history and traditions as much as other Englishmen — were denounced as traitors, because the pope lived in Rome and not in London. And yet the worldwide nature of the Church, and the fact of Christ having established it and given it life, centered on the Eucharist, had never been disputed in this way before, and Peter’s successors had always been recognized for what they were and honored as such.

Today, we find a strangely linked situation, only on a different set of issues. Catholics are confronted with issues that we find awkward and embarrassing. We seem out of tune with everyone else, with the national consensus, with the mass media, with Government policies. As Catholics, at a time of sexual anarchy, we find ourselves defending the traditional understanding of marriage as only between a man and a woman, open to new life, which was at one time held by everyone in our country and accepted as the basis of our common life. We find ourselves trying to explain why it is wrong deliberately to abort an unborn baby, and why we must teach chastity to young people and refrain from looking at pornography.

For upholding these truths, Catholics are widely denounced — and may in the not-very-distant future be subjected to legal penalties (especially on the issue of same-sex marriage). We find ourselves not always up to the task of explaining the Christian teaching in a very articulate way. We are embarrassed and do not want to discuss some of these things anyway. We would rather not look odd in front of our neighbors and friends, or be seen to be out of touch with the rest of society, with the mood of the times.

But we are Catholic for a reason. We need to think things out. We have an obligation to seek the truth, and to defend it when we have found it. Along with the heroic martyrs of our past, we have to recognize that truth is non-negotiable. Unlike them, we are not called upon to die for the Catholic Faith. But we do share with them a need to discover, study, and learn about the particular issues of our day that confront us all, and to show that truth does not change.

And this is because Catholicism isn’t just a private thing. It’s about the common good. It’s about caring for the poor and building up a community that is neighborly and has space for Christian charity. It makes demands upon us — demands that may oblige us sometimes even to clash with public authority. It is also something that builds up what is good: the Catholic Church founded all of Europe’s great universities (including, of course, Oxford and Cambridge in England) and hospitals and hospices and traditions of medicine. It created schools, cared for the poor, served the needs of vagrants and the lonely and dispossessed and exiles and prisoners. All sorts of things — from Wensleydale cheese to Dom Perignon champagne, from medical uses of herbs to the training of St. Bernard dogs for Alpine rescues — were the creation of Catholic monasteries Today, the Catholic Church is in the slums of Asia where Mother Teresa’s nuns are scooping up abandoned babies and giving them a home and a life. It is in prisons and in shanty towns, in AIDS clinics and in rural hospitals, in youth centers and primary schools and welfare organizations. The Catholic Faith, down the centuries, has fostered some of the world’s most sublime music, art, and architecture. It has been at the forefront of academic life, scientific research, expanding knowledge of geography and of history.

Today, in proclaiming human values about life, sex, marriage, and relationships — and about the value of an unborn baby, a frail elderly person, or someone lying unconscious in the hospital — the Church is bound to an unchangeable set of values. To be a Catholic is to be part of this. To share a heritage with the saints and heroes of the past and to take responsibility for doing good today, here and now.

Of course we know that the Church is full of sinners too — we are aware of that, because we know about sin in our own lives. Even here, we are embarrassed. We let people make jokes about our suffering from “Catholic guilt”, but feel embarrassed to point out that feeling guilt is a healthy thing — like feeling pain, which is an indication that something is wrong, something needs to be tackled and mended and healed.

We are Catholic for a reason. We belong to a Church that for 2,000 years has taught the message of Jesus Christ, and brought His sacraments to man. Through the Church, He remains with us, in the holy Eucharist. Through the Church, we can receive His full forgiveness, in the Sacrament of Penance.

This is not a small thing. If it’s all true — if the claims of the Catholic Church are true — then they demand a response. This is the key to the question of why we were all born at all, whether there is any point to life, what is the meaning of human existence.

To be a Catholic is to know a certain joy: it is not for nothing that Catholicism has been seen as being a cheery religion, a religion of feasts and celebrations, the religion of merry England, of music and mince-pies and actors and novelists and G.K. Chesterton.

The Catholic Faith is a Faith of glory, and of drama — heroic Father Damien at work in a leper colony, martyrs in the Tower of London — or in the Gulag, or in Auschwitz, or Pope Benedict addressing a million youngsters on World Youth Day. It’s a religion of the everyday — of young people at a Confirmation group, a couple getting married, people at work and children at play, a million charitable projects connected to every possible field of life, a chalice lifted high at Mass, a priest anointing someone who is dying….

A Catholic connects to the Church with the whole of his life. Most of us know we are fairly poor examples of what a Christian should be, but we know where forgiveness is to be found, and we know that in trying to live the way Christ taught us, and being fed by His Sacraments we are connecting to what life is really all about.

We are Catholic for a reason.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio and television.

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