In the last 167 years England has produced two very different, contrasting Catholicisms. A third is now urgently required.
With the restoration in 1850 of a fully-fledged hierarchy led by the flamboyant Cardinal Wiseman, what had been a small, inward-looking, largely rural and, in the not-so-distant past, harshly persecuted Catholic community finally came into the full light of day. A rich harvest of often ‘spectacular’ converts (like John Henry Newman) had greatly helped to give that community new self-confidence; and then the influx into our burgeoning industrial towns of thousands of Irish families fleeing famine and destitution would soon turn it into a largely urban, working-class and fast-growing one.
Our bishops had therefore to embark on a huge building programme: hundreds of churches and presbyteries, plus cathedrals and seminaries. Dozens of new orders of nuns, friars, and brothers opened hundreds of schools, and then orphanages, teacher-training colleges, hospitals. Before long there would be English priests and sisters hard at work in Africa, India, and beyond.
This was ‘the Church militant’: confident, ultramontane, heroic.
Of course, the Anglican Church was the Established one, the respectable and seemingly unchallengeable one. It influenced national life in a way which is hard for us to appreciate today. It embodied ‘Englishness’. It and the monarchy were natural allies. It informed the Empire. It dominated the older universities. Its glorious medieval cathedrals and country churches dominated the landscape.
It enjoyed such authority that as late as 1938 the then Archbishop of Canterbury could play a decisive part in forcing Edward VIII to abdicate because he was intent on marrying a divorcee.
But we English Catholics knew that it was fundamentally a sham – ‘invented’ in the sixteenth century. The papal bull Apostolicae Curae of 1894 had declared Anglican orders ‘utterly null and void’. We prayed confidently for the re-conversion of England at every Sunday Mass. It was only a matter of time, we knew, before the imposture that was Anglicanism imploded and our country returned to Holy Mother Church. Then, in the words of the famous hymn ‘Faith of our Fathers’, England would ‘indeed be free’; and we would get back those medieval churches and cathedrals which our forebears built.
(I know all this because that is the Catholicism in which I was brought up and in which I lived, confidently, into my ‘forties.)
Then came Vatican II – and with it a bewildering ‘personality change’ of the English Catholic community. Hundreds of priests, monks, friars and nuns just walked out. Seminaries emptied almost overnight, religious houses closed, previously flourishing lay organisations like the Newman Association and Catholic Evidence Guild withered. The church-building stopped.
Pre-Vatican II zeal was suddenly mocked as ‘triumphalism’. ’Conversion’ became, for some, almost a dirty word. The future lay with ecumenism and ‘dialogue’, not ‘mission’.
This was emphatically not what the Fathers of Vatican II had intended; alas, this is what was inexplicably unleashed. The Catholic Church in England and throughout Europe and the English-speaking world was being assaulted by that same pseudo-Christian liberalism which emasculated Anglicanism.
But all was not lost. On the contrary.
Leave aside the immeasurable importance of the influx of ex-High Church Anglican ministers into the Catholic priesthood, which postponed our present vocations crisis by several decades.
The overall collapse of the Anglican Church and the near-disappearance of Methodism and the other non-Conformists from the national religious scene in recent times have left a huge spiritual vacuum at the heart of English society. Ours is indeed a post-Christian one. An increasingly arrogant neo-paganism is engulfing us.
This is lamentable. But is it not also a God-given opportunity for the English Catholic community to come out of its post-Vatican II diffidence, deference, introversion (call it what you like) and resume what our forefathers began again in 1850: that is, to reclaim our beloved country for the true Church?
Famously, in 1852 John Henry Newman, preaching at a celebration of that restoration of our Hierarchy, spoke of a ‘Second Spring’. This yielded a rich harvest. But now we need a third.
How will this come about?
It will be the apostolate of every Catholic priest, deacon, lay woman and man. We all have to take up this challenge.
Above all it will be the responsibility of our bishops. Hitherto unseen and unheard by the outside world, they have to come out from the sidelines – to become the nation’s spiritual leaders, heirs to the likes of Anselm, Becket, and John Fisher.
They must proclaim the good news that God loves us and longs for us to love him; that his Son has re-opened the gates of Heaven for and we can all pass through them if we want to; that the seven sacraments have been given to us to enable us to do so.
They must preach fearlessly about sin, the Devil, Purgatory, and Hell.
They must explain to our befuddled world that marriage can be only between a man and a woman, should precede living together and is indissoluble; that sodomy, fornication, and adultery are sins; that, as Humanae Vitae explains, contraceptionism is debasing and dehumanising; that abortion kills real, living fellow-human beings; that to be prolife is to be truly democratic and enlightened.
They must speak collegially, that is, collectively. The outside world will pay little attention to individuals.
Indeed, the bishops of England, Wales, and Scotland have just issued an admirable, (and unprecedented?) collective statement reaffirming the Church’s teaching on abortion to mark the royal assent fifty years ago to our Abortion Act. Remarkably, it is addressed not just to the Faithful but to the whole of society.
Of course, it has attracted no attention in the secular press. But it could mark the beginning of that new, courageous era in the history of the Church in this land for which we crave.
In proclaiming Catholic teaching on sexual morality in its fullness our leaders will incur outraged fury from all directions: the media, frenetic feminists, the pro-abortion lobby, academia, the liberal intelligentsia, and others galore. Alas, even many Catholics will rebel.
But they must not be intimidated. We must pray for martyrs. As Newman reminded the bishops in that sermon, these are still ‘the seed of the Church’.
Even if only some of all this happens, before too long the seminaries will begin to fill again, new religious communities will appear and old ones revive. We will even be building new schools and churches again. And our society will be on the way to a deep renewal.
There are many good, decent people ‘out there’ who, though without any religious allegiance, will know in their hearts that our ‘counter-culture’ makes sense.
Many strict Moslems in our midst who are rightly shocked by Western decadence and double standards (and are therefore vulnerable to radicalisation) will be assuaged. Yes, a Third Spring is not just possible. It is urgent. Catholics, and perhaps now only Catholics, really know why human beings exist. Most of our fellow-citizens do not even ask the question. Catholics know how the world began and that it will end. Catholics know for certain where true happiness lies. Catholics can laugh and cry wholeheartedly, that is, can fully understand why they do either.
It is our duty to do all we can to deliver our fellow-citizens from their ignorance, their spiritual malnutrition, their false gods, their worldly addictions and fears, their blindness, their spiritual sedatives and placebos. It is our duty to do all we can to help them, as well as ourselves, to get to Heaven.
But a big question confronts us. It is this: given that the Church’s teaching on marriage and human sexuality – set out bravely by Paul VI in the encyclical Humane Vitae – is now so at odds with what our society practices and professes (but is of such fundamental importance to every society) are we prepared to proclaim that teaching in its fullness? Have we the courage? To be precise, do we agree that Humanae Vitae is the authentic, binding teaching of the Church? Do we see that, if you are right about it, you are likely to be right about most other moral issues and, if you are wrong about it, you are likely to be wrong about a lot of other things?
Unless the answer to all this is a firm ‘yes’, that Third Spring can never happen. Indeed, none of the above should even be attempted.