Faith and Reason: True authority draws the world towards it: In a further article in our series on Catholicism without Rome, John Wilkins, editor of the Tablet, says that Roman Catholicism is not for people who like religion 'nice'.

I BECAME a Catholic in 1965, as Pope John XXIII's reforming Second Vatican Council ended. He called it to bring the Church up to date and, asked what its purpose would be, is said to have symbolically opened a window. This was Reformation Roman-style and I found it a revelation that a Church could change so much by going down to its roots. It became clear to me that the Church of England to which I then belonged did not have a doctrine of development that would have allowed it to grow organically in this way.

Some English Catholic commentators on the Second Vatican Council have played down the transformation it brought about, and under Pope John Paul II, the first Slav Pope, moves have been made to counter the Western optimism which the Eastern Europeans thought they saw enshrined in the conciliar decrees. This subsequent revisionism has been called 'the Slav revenge'. Nevertheless the Council continues to inspire Catholic renewal because at the heart of it was a recovery of the Christian humanism which had been less evident in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Then the Catholic Church became afraid of the modern world and pulled up the drawbridge, presenting itself as a perfect society over and above the transient flux of temporal happenings. Now it has reasserted its fundamental identity as a hierarchically structured people's church on pilgrimage through the world of today.

It has been said that anyone becoming a Catholic in England needs a double conversion, first to the faith and then to the other people. I never found the need for this second conversion. It was an attraction that this church so obviously crossed the boundaries of nationality, race and class. It struck me that while Protestant countries seemed politically more wholesome - something that held me back from the Catholic Church for a time - Catholics as individuals were happier. Perhaps they had more reason to be thankful for forgiveness.

The Catholic Church is a church under authority with all the attraction that brings - 'Submit, submit', as the poet Arthur Hugh Clough said - together with all the dangers of infringing the sovereignty of conscience. But what John XXIII made self-evident was that true authority draws the world towards it. In him you could almost see Peter the fisherman. Pope John Paul II has the same commission, but this Pope's style is different. His supporters and opponents alike acknowledge that he has greatness, an evangelist whose contribution to the collapse of the Communist empire will be variously estimated but cannot be ignored. As to the Church, there he sees himself as the rock, imparting stability so as to keep the show on the road. But there is a cost.

Correcting the imbalance of the First Vatican Council's papal doctrine, the Second laid down the direction for advance side by side with a reaffirmation of the old: that is the Roman way. So in the conciliar documents extreme assertions of papal power coexist with a vision of the pope as leader of a team, with his bishops round him - the doctrine of 'collegiality', by which the college of bishops, with the Pope at its head, governs. There is no more than a moral obligation for a pope to follow this second way rather than the first and John Paul II has not done so.

It is Rome's authority which is impelling some Anglo-Catholics at present towards the Roman Catholic Church, but here exactly is also the area of greatest debate. The teaching authority today certainly uses the language of the Council, but reduces or shifts its meaning. Collegiality is interpreted as 'the bishops following the Pope'. The emphasis is not on the team but on the captain. Observing the present Roman scene, commentators are often struck by its resemblance to a court. It is impossible against this background to conceive of any redress of the encyclical of Paul VI reaffirming the ban on contraception, which is the Achilles' heel of Roman authority, or of the other urgent questions about the Church's structure and organisation at present awaiting resolution. It is as though the Church had gone on a religious retreat, in order to strengthen itself by self-examination and meditation. The thaw will come, but not yet.

Yet this is still the Church, ecclesia semper reformanda. There is no such thing as a perfect church. There is no such thing as 'the church we want'. Those who belong to the Church will suffer through the Church.

'I believe in the holy catholic Church,' Archbishop William Temple said, 'and sincerely regret that it does not at present exist.' But without the existing Church there is a hole in the centre of Christian life. I felt that hole after my conversion to Christianity as an Anglican. I knew hardly any Roman Catholics then, having been brought up in the Church of England by parents of nonconformist background. But I felt a mismatch between my experience of fire and Spirit when I chose the Christian over the atheist way, and the teaching I subsequently received. Things did not add up. Something was missing. I did not know what it was but it was there when I read Roman Catholic books, whether I agreed with them or not. Those who wrote them believed in the holy catholic Church and were sincerely glad it did exist.

It is more than the Church, though, for what makes the Church is the Mass. 'This is my body.' 'This is my blood.' It is not magic, but the simple lapidary words have an awesome significance. 'Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.' God himself humbly present in a morsel of bread, a drop of wine.

I knew nothing about the Mass when I began my journey towards the Roman Catholic Church. One Sunday shortly before Christmas I went by chance - except that those things are never just by chance - into Westminster Cathedral. I was rooted to the spot at the drama going on inside. This was not like the Eucharist as I knew it in the broad Church of Anglicanism, where Cranmer's doctrine laid stress on how the believer was transported by faith into the heavenlies. Here was something very precisely down to earth. Based on a sole visit to an Anglo-Catholic church in Cambridge, I had in my head an idea that Roman Catholics hardly ever took communion, but at the end of the Mass the whole congregation went up to the altar rails to receive the body of Christ. When I went out of that cathedral I was already a Roman Catholic by desire.

If you like your religion 'nice', this is not a church to join. This is not a gentleman's faith. The essence of it is not politeness. You cannot just slip in and out of it. It is basic. The Catholic writer Sheila Cassidy likes to quote Meister Eckhart (if indeed it was he who said it): 'Put on your jumping shoes, and jump into the heart of God.' That is what Catholicism offers you.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence