England is already Catholic: but don’t tell the English
I have been toying with this theory for some time, but with trepidation, because for many English (I cannot speak for the Scots or Welsh) the Pope is still the bogeyman dont they burn his effigy in Lewes? Benedicts visit was threatened with protests from Bible believing Protestants (true to their name), but also secularists criticising Papal teaching on women priests (though they dont believe in priests and dont think much of women either). And yet the Popes visit was a miraculous success.
This was not unconnected with the increasingly intolerant Atheist campaign against intolerance, so that the shy, gentle and yet courageous Benedict showed the public who the real bigots were. For many, it restored their faith in the Church; for me, it restored my faith in England, for although English people are not regular church-goers, they rather like their children to be taught about the Christian religion.
In its game of divide and rule, Atheism - now the least popular religion - emphasises a dogma-ridden Catholicism as a warning against popular disillusionment with Anglicanisms theological fuzziness; Catholicism is portrayed as elitist, evangelical Protestants as Bible-bashing fundamentalists. However, the English are not exactly keen on abortion, or the new commandment that all must approve homosexual marriage; highlighting these issues risks making the Church more popular, thus opponents stick to ridiculing the teaching on birth control (the English still believe it helps prevent abortion) and the women priests issue, which appeals to the English sense of fair play.
The clergy child abuse scandal was a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the Papal visit, but Benedict unflinchingly, though sensitively, confronted it and, indeed, if every English institution affected by this evil plague were to be abolished we would have no police, teachers, social services, voluntary organisations, or even marriage.
The English value tradition, even when the shell is preserved after the substance has decayed; the English lost a positive, popular faith at the Reformation, and it has never been replaced; the Nonconformist tradition, although popular among poorer people, nevertheless defined itself against the Church of England. And yet positive faith has never been eradicated: instead it has been internalised, driven back into the private sphere - even the subconscious sphere passed down through the family - so that the hunger for God, often prompted by bereavement, emerges almost guiltily. So far the most public expression of this private religion has been to reject Rome; religion, along with politics, is seldom discussed at dinner parties (to avoid unpleasantness); however, the Englishmans castle guards his private religion - although the drawbridge will be lowered, and he will charge forth in response to fears that religion might be eradicated altogether.
Catholicism is seen as foreign and dangerous by the English, but so is all religious enthusiasm, a leftover from times when to be a Catholic was defined as traitorous. We are still portrayed as sinister in television detective drama in which, so often, the mad Catholic dunnit; propinquity might help beat negative portraiture, but there are not enough Catholics to go around. Old suspicions survive, revive and thrive: Catholics are seen as both too worldly and too otherworldly - but so are the English, who alternate between feasting and fasting between binge-drinking/eating and guilt-fuelled dieting. English people find the Catholic preoccupation with relics weird, and yet any item touched by a dead rock star fetches thousands on E-bay. Catholic churches are seen as over-adorned, but the Englishmans castle remains a shrine to his numerous hobbies and pointless collections. English bafflement at Catholic pilgrimages can be countered with just two words: camping holidays; as to the Catholic preoccupation with misery, I repeat... We English are never happier than when were complaining, and yet we honour self-sacrifice; no secularist would even suggest doing away with the Remembrance services, when the words of St. Ignatius Loyola (To toil and not to seek for rest...) are reverently repeated. The Reformation forbade us to pray for the dead but we still honour them witness the spontaneous demonstrations of respect for the flag-draped coffins of fallen servicemen in Wootton Bassett. Our heroes and heroines - secular saints - are characterised by self-sacrifice or they were until the spirit of Year Zero decreed our entire history to be racist, sexist and homophobic; despite this, societies dedicated to the worship of literary heroes and heroines persist. Still, Catholics are accused of dressing up and holding tawdry ceremonies: so do Freemasons. Rules and regulations? Try joining a bowls club or any voluntary organisation where the first thing we want to do (as G. K. Chesterton noted) is make rules.
Benedicts remarks about sidelining religion were warmly welcomed, but the English do not understand what the Pope is for; they cannot see the point of someone telling them what they already know to them it is simply commonsense. The English are the ninety-nine who could be safely left on the hillside - because they have been; their religion has been internalised as honesty, decency and fairness, and if we had not been taken over by the chattering classes, we would not have experienced the plague of crime and disorder of the last forty years. The English seem to be pragmatists and Utilitarians, but we have no interest in philosophy because we already have one religion; we already have the why of life, we just need a how. This we leave to politicians and, despite our grumbles, we actually believe they can be left to get on with the job; we rely too much on experts, and even when the real ideology of these false shepherds is revealed - most spectacularly regarding sex education - we cannot believe that anyone addressing a social problem could not be genuine. We are willing to listen to any sermon providing it isnt delivered from a pulpit - except that this time, when the Pope spoke, people listened; perhaps it was because we thought he was speaking commonsense.
If the English dont see the point of the Catholic Church it is because they think it is religion imposed from outside; an old lady once asked Chesterton if he actually believed what he wrote, and regarded him as a sort of fabulous griffin when he pleaded guilty; a similar (and uncharacteristic) silence fell when a taxi driver asked me warily whether I was religious; what he meant was, did I think that God might exist. The English believe that going to church is a step too far; they would prefer to linger in the porch, but the idea of abolishing the Church fills them with dismay, since they fully intend to pop in some time before they die. Sir Winston Churchill was typically English in describing himself as less a pillar of the Church than a buttress supporting it from the outside; equally typical was his hatred of change in liturgy or prayers, but his speech warning of blood, toil, tears and sweat resonated deeply with the British. Self-sacrifice is not the commonsense of the secularist; it is God-sense: to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, as Kipling wrote, does not come from pragmatic self-interest. England is not a nation of pessimists but a nation of fearful optimists fearful that if they reach out to God, there might be no one there.
This is why we spend Christmas saying we will be glad when its all over, and our patron saints day telling each other that he probably didnt exist; but if we ever needed St George it is now, for if the new Atheism has its way, the public expression of Christianity would be eradicated from our daily lives.
Doubting Thomas might be a more appropriate patron for the English, but at least he had the courage to test the reality of the risen Christ; his English namesakes, St Thomas of Canterbury and St Thomas More, paid with their lives when political power triumphed over religion, and it should be evident to the English, a nation of empiricists, that any power allowed to overreach itself be it church, monarchy, the European Union, or unelected experts must be bad for England. Converts like Newman and Chesterton were influenced as much by the imperfections of England as by the perceived perfection of Rome; indeed the Church, being distant, is less vulnerable to national politics and the current fashion remote enough to be less threatening than the false shepherds who pose as saviours of the people. Such converts could only love England more by becoming more Catholic. England has changed out of all recognition, and the English dont like it; I believe that most are already Catholic in their hearts, if not their heads, but I no longer posit the theory with trepidation, fearful that the mere idea might be enough to drive England into the arms of the Atheists; for in a country where football appears to be the national religion (albeit one that oscillates between presumption and despair), Benedicts visit scored a resounding Pope 1, Atheists 0.
(January 2011. A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Times newspaper.)