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'.
Saturday 19 June 1993
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.
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