Catholics: Britain's largest minority, by Dennis Sewell

The enduring fascination of Catholicism
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In an interview to mark his 70th birthday, the late Basil Hume was asked about the flood of converts to Catholicism unleashed by the Church of England's decision to ordain women. The normally careful Cardinal let slip the phrase "the reconversion of England". It caused a storm and Hume's advisers quickly began to distance him from the remark. The problem was that it reawakened the ghost that the urbane and spiritual Hume had laboured hard to lay to rest ­ the idea that the Catholic Church in Britain was a fifth column, taking orders from Rome, and intent on reversing the Reformation to reclaim "Mary's dowry" for the Pope.

The phrase had been around since before the Emancipation Act of 1829, which removed the last of the penal legislation that had turned Catholics into second-class citizens. It had been on the lips of countless generations of Catholic schoolchildren as they prayed and seemed to underpin a triumphalist pastoral letter, "From Out The Flaminian Gate", issued by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman in 1850 on his installation as head of the newly restored Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales. Queen Victoria was reportedly so outraged by his contention that "the greatest of blessings has been bestowed on our country by the restoration of its true Catholic hierarchical government" that she asked: "Am I Queen of England or am I not?"

Dennis Sewell, a BBC journalist, takes the pursuit of that goal of reconversion as the unifying factor in his popular and pacey history of the modern Catholic Church in these isles. It is now an aspiration that dares not speak its name, but Sewell is not entirely convinced it has gone away. Certainly, prominent Catholics of a certain age ­ most notably Lord Longford ­ still talk openly of their hopes of converting the decision-makers around them. But the old hope has mainly, Sewell argues, been sublimated into something else.

The modern approach is not so much to win individuals, but rather to cosy up to the British Establishment and integrate with it. Catholics in the Cabinet are now so routine we hardly notice their presence, though once Shirley Williams and Norman St John Stevas stuck out like sore thumbs. We now have our first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation. If Tony Blair finally tires of Derry Irvine and replaces him with Patricia Scotland as Lord Chancellor, she will be the first Catholic (as well as the first black woman ­ a notable triple whammy) to sit on the Woolsack. Who knows: the Prime Minister himself, fond of attending Mass at Westminster Cathedral, may soon lose his inhibitions and take the Pope's shilling. But I am beginning to sound like Lord Longford.

Sewell scores well in his command of history, better in his turn of phrase, and best of all in his delightful vignettes of prominent Catholics like Paul Johnson (proud that he has "not a single drop of Protestant blood in his veins") and Cristina Odone, whom he quotes as hell-bent on rescuing English Catholicism from the perception that it was "a B-movie starring Victoria Gillick". Yet, occasionally, he can let people get in the way of the argument. While he expertly negotiates his way round misconceptions that all Catholics are either liberal or conservative, he never quite gets to the heart of what it is that keeps them all in the same fold.

Why, in a secular and scientific age which delights in making religion an Aunt Sally, does Catholicism continue to exert such a fascination? It is not just that a few prominent names in the media are left-footers, or that John Paul II is a charismatic man on a world stage crowded with dullards.

What is Sewell's answer? Nothing too specific ­ vague talk of mystery, transcendence and grace, plus a few negatives. So the eminent religious historian Karen Armstrong is quoted as saying that, when she gave up her Catholic faith, the world stopped being "fraught with significance". Without wanting to bare my Catholic soul and invite your sympathy, that sounds to me like a good reason for staying in.

The reviewer is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald'