Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Popularity and fidelity in the public square

Francis Phillips has written a very interesting piece on Cardinal Hume in The Catholic Herald online, or more precisely on the Anthony Howard's forward and epilogue to his biography of the Cardinal published in 2005. Phillips was most disturbed at Howard's claim that Cardinal Hume "[persuaded] a predominantly unbelieving public that it was perfectly possible to be a convinced Christian without being in any sense a crank”. Curiously, Howard's view of Hume correlated with the Tablet's obituary of the cardinal which claimed:

'That is not the way we do things in England' became a trademark of his, to ward off policies and approaches [of Rome] that were unlikely to endear themselves to the Catholic Church at home.

In her own article Phillips eventually concludes:

In his clear pursuit of Catholic respectability within the English Establishment, crowned by getting Her Majesty to attend Vespers in Westminster Cathedral, Hume was wrong. You simply cannot be true to Catholic teachings on eg the sacredness of life before birth and in sickness and old age, sexual behaviour and the nature of marriage and hope to be “respectable”.

This view rings bells with me at the moment. In my current reading, Georges Bernanos's pamphlet Le Scandale de la vérité, the desire to sacrifice truth, justice and honour to corporate interest (in Bernanos's analysis these are sacrificed to national interest) is seen as a peculiar sin of the French right wing in the interwar years. But why did the French right make such sacrifices? Solely for the sake of practical leverage. Never mind the message; feel the influence. Is this ringing bells for anybody else?

Without further study, it would be unfair of me to apply these principles to Hume's case - and I beg you not to throw Hume to the dogs in the comment box unless you do it dispassionately and with hard evidence - but the major premise of Phillips's argument is correct: sanctity and worldly popularity are rarely bed fellows. Good grief, that is an evangelical principle: If this is what they do in the green wood, what will they do in the dry? (Luke 23: 31) As St Teresa of Avila says somewhere, you cannot begin to serve God until you've lost your reputation. Other saints clearly became holy by the sacrifice of their worldly leverage. Indeed, one might even claim the path to holiness through the sacrifice of worldly success is a particularly English one: St Thomas à Becket, St Thomas More, St Edmund Campion, Blessed John Henry Newman ... need I go on?

So what is the legacy of Hume in terms of Catholic fidelity in public life? Well, I'm sure there is evidence to the contrary, but when I think now about the association of Catholics with the British Establishment, it is not hard-headed, uncompromisingly orthodox figures that spring to mind, but individuals like Tony Blair or Greg Pope. When the vote was taken at the third reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008, at least twenty Catholic MPs voted in favour of it, including two papal knights.

So here is the question for the Howardian view: if Hume's policy was so good, where are the persuasive Catholic voices in the public sphere who manage to be Catholic, orthodox, popular and successful? Or is this marriage of popularity and fidelity ultimately like the legendary Philosopher's Stone which turns base metal in gold?

Neither is this a dead argument. We might might need the velvet glove approach in this country, but isn't it about time we did away with the limp wrists? Our new papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, charged with nominating replacements for up to 38% of the bishops of England and Wales in the next three years, needs our prayers.

I haven't read Howard's biography of Cardinal Hume and maybe I should. Still, if Howard is right about Hume, and if Howard's case is that public relations are more crucial than fidelity to the Church, I say that is a difficult burden for any man's memory to carry, particularly one hoping to serve the disreputable Son of God.

6 comments:

Anagnostis said...

There's nothing especially English about it - in every age and place the saints are few, and mostly persecuted, Dying with Christ is a non-negotiable part of the deal.

It was almost always the corrupt bishops walking lock-step with the "Orthodox" Emperors; the ones commemorated in feasts and icons (St John Chrysostom, St Maximos the Confessor) were usually their victims - calumniated, tortured, exiled, martyred.

Ches said...

I didn't say it was only an English thing; merely that some of our greatest saints happened to have become holy in the very process of losing their worldly celebrity or status. That's not true of all saints or even many saints by any means, especially those who lead hidden lives of virtue or who lives are far distant from political or pulic life.

That said, would I be right in assuming you think those I have listed as saints are schismatics?

Anagnostis said...

It's certainly not my place to form judgements of that sort on individuals. Our churches are divided. Each regards the other as schismatic (at the very least) - it's probably wisest, in the case of individuals, to acknowledge the fact and leave it at that. I'm not persuaded that it's reasonable to regard every "westerner" pre-1054 as Orthodox, and all of them afterwards as schismatics and heretics (the date is largely symbolic in any case, the growing-apart having begun much earlier and completed much later).

There are certainly some western saints (I won't offer unnecessary offence by naming any) that I'd definitely hesitate to accept as such; others, not. To dismiss Therese of Lisieux (for example) as a schismatic is obviously ridiculous.

Anyway, I was agreeing with your general point! Courting respectability is not a Christian pursuit. Sanctity and the good opinion of the world are diametrically opposed. As Chesterton observed, a saint may be filthy, but a seducer is always clean.

berenike said...

I read a op-ed not long after Hume's death that said, thinking to praise him, that "he made Catholicism acceptable to the establishment".

ouch.

GOR said...

Well in my time in England (which was before Cdl. Hume’s tenure) there was a feeling among many in The Establishment that the Catholic Church in England was mostly populated by “poor immigrant Irish and Italians” (the Poles had not yet come to the fore as immigrants, given that many of them had been there from the post-war years). I suspect that Hume may have been conscious of this and wished to change that perception.

Perhaps like Sir Humphrey (“Yes, Prime Minister” - on the qualifications for Anglican bishops…) he wished that English Catholics should be seen to “speak well and know which fork to use…” All those Irish and Italians accents were just lowering standards, as it were. However, one of the characteristics of Christians down the ages was that they ‘were not as other men’ – or women for that matter. They became more so after Constantine and while initially it was beneficial for the Church, in time it proved counter-productive.

Something about serving two masters, one suspects.

Sadie Vacantist said...

Ever since privately educated alternative comedians used their media connections to get Hume’s near contemporary Benny Hill the sack by Thames TV during the early 80’s (Hill had made millions for Thames in overseas sales), I am no longer confident that I know how to define or identify what constitutes the “British establishment”. Evidently, Howard thinks he remains qualified to bandy around this phrase but I noticed that he was absent from our screens at the last election and it would appear that both the ‘establishment’ and plebeians alike are now bored with him. Perhaps he will accept their decision and with the dignity becoming a gentleman, disappear into quiet retirement with this astonishingly awful tome as his legacy.

In conclusion and looking at the lives of these “aitches”, it’s hard not to conclude that Hill was both the most talented and maligned of the three at the end of his life.