Faith & Reason: A move from the uncomfortable to the smelly

If the Prime Minister converted to Catholicism it would not matter because religion no longer counts, argues Andrew Brown.
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The Independent Online
THE PRAYER of St Augustine may be modified for use by Cardinals: "Oh Lord, make Blair Catholic - but not yet." There is something fishy about the story that Tony Blair has been seen loitering with intent in Westminster Cathedral: it is impossible to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the Prime Minister might be feeling the pull of Rome even when we are assured by Paul Johnson that it must be true. Even the sort of liberal Roman Catholic who can generally be relied on to disagree with Paul Johnson about everything will not, in private, dismiss the possibility that the Prime Minister might be feeling the occasional twinge of longing for the mother church. They know that such twinges may come to anyone and even overwhelm them; and that, even if it makes no sense for Blair to become a Catholic, it still might happen.

It is difficult to give the right weight to these intuitions, partly because they conflict so absolutely with the ways in which the press normally reports religious sentiment. The original reports of Blair's attendance at Westminster Cathedral came refracted through the goggle-eyed disbelief of most journalists that anyone could ever enter a church without ulterior motives. It is a basic assumption of most reporting and thinking about religion that worship is a disagreeable experience, and the more fervent and sincere, the more disagreeable it is likely to be for all concerned. The idea that anyone might call in at a church for refreshment makes no sense at all in the context in which news is usually reported.

This generalised hostility or incomprehension towards religion does discriminate between Catholicism and Protestantism - roughly speaking, it holds that Protestantism is disagreeable and uncomfortable and Catholicism disagreeable and smelly. Neither of these characterisations explains why someone might change from one to the other. What an enormous change this represents from the situation even 40 years ago. Then there was no doubt that Catholicism stood for something profoundly different from Protestantism. It was not just the political and constitutional problems, though these seemed real enough even 20 years ago, when Enoch Powell, in one of his more harmless lunacies, decided that it would be illegal for Pope John Paul II to visit the country.

The idea that English nationalism is necessarily, or essentially Protestant, has simply withered away to the point where it makes no sense any more, though it formed part of the nation's self-understanding for nearly 400 years. In Northern Ireland it makes a bitter and twisted sense still, but that is something that Tony Blair's government is trying to abolish. The effort to separate religious and tribal identity in Northern Ireland has nothing to do with the Prime Minister's religious leanings. These are subordinate to the overwhelming belief in modernity as the solvent for old problems, and that, though it makes it possible or at least thinkable for him to become a Catholic, also changes the meaning of the conversion to something our ancestors could not recognise.

Yet even after the political classes in this country had abandoned the sense of a special Protestant destiny as ridiculous - and this abandonment must have something to do with changing political attitudes to Europe - the idea of Catholicism as something culturally distinct and alien remained vivid. Catholics, it seemed, had a different and privileged way of looking at the world. This shows very clearly in Brideshead Revisited, where the author makes his characters behave in ways inexplicable to the modern secular mind as they respond to the promptings of grace. But Brideshead also offered another way of viewing Catholics as different: they were more fashionable, more exotic, and had better legs - in fact they were altogether more like Ms Cristina Odone - than normal people. And the discussion over Blair's possible conversion shows that that distinction, too, has vanished. No one has suggested that the Prime Minister will become a more interesting or exotic figure if he converts. The assimilation of the religion to the mainstream is complete. It may be the greatest triumph of Cardinal Hume's leadership.

One small doubt must remain, though. The argument of this piece is that the Prime Minister may well become a Catholic; but only because it no longer matters. No one supposes it will affect his politics. The Catholic Church has become as English as the House of Lords and nearly as grand but on the way it has lost a lot of elemental force. The logical culmination of these deep trends is a House of Lords where everyone, from Earl Blair downwards, is a Catholic - but the Church has no members outside it.

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