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Catholicism made us what we are

Why do people get so upset about Catholics? "I hate Catholics," is quite commonly heard in otherwise civilised circles. And, whenever a Catholic story is in the headlines, everybody dives in to trash the Papists or to tell them how to run their church. Now, for example, everybody feels free to demand that priestly celibacy should be abandoned.

This is a profoundly irrational state of affairs - for why should non- Catholics care? Nobody has to be a Catholic so those who are must be freely acquiescing in the rules of the church. Of course, there will be slippage in this acquiescence - notably on contraception - but, again, this is of no logical concern, other than as a matter of interest, to non-Catholics. The old attempt to blame anti-contraception Catholics for the global population crisis, and therefore accuse them of damaging the interests of non-Catholics, has long been laid to rest by the exposure of the statistical absurdity of the idea.

This all becomes even more irrational if we try to imagine substituting Judaism or Islam in all these commentaries and stories about Catholicism. Impossible. Nobody would dare dictate religious practice to Jews or Muslims. And yet, routinely, liberal atheists, to whom the whole thing must be no more than a lacy, incense-laden freak show, tell Catholics what to do. It is not even as if Roman Catholicism was our national church. In fact, most people, if asked, regard it as a faintly exotic Mediterranean import like polenta or tapas.

And, finally to raise the irrationality of the Catholic-bashers to the level of incurable dementia, the Roman Catholic Church is obviously the most staggeringly impressive institution ever created by man or, if you prefer, God. It has been responsible for the greatest works of the human imagination and, as transcendent think-tank, it has been responsible for the longest continuous procession of philosophical genius the world has ever known. Contemporary intellectual pygmies should think carefully before they start making even bigger fools of themselves by sniping at this extraordinary scholarly edifice. Criticise Catholicism by all means, but, trust me, you will have to work at it.

So why does Catholicism occupy so much space? My theory about this is inspired by a remark made by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Asked if he was abandoning Catholicism to become a Protestant, he replies: "I said that I had lost the faith, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"

Now that it has abandoned its ill-advised claims about the physical universe, Catholicism makes only one fundamental claim: that, 2,000 years ago, God became man and died for our sins. All else, from the teaching on contraception to the hierarchy and the bureaucracy, follows. Other rational organisations from the same starting point are possible. But none other has been so carefully constructed by such monumental intellects.

Contemporary liberalism, in contrast, is a pretty thin affair. It makes a fairly feeble claim about the relativity of values - a claim which, in human terms, is a good deal more extravagant than the divinity of Christ - and, from that, derives a set of attitudes, none of which can logically be imposed or even advocated. This does not make anybody's heart beat faster. But contemporary liberalism does have one, not very respectable ace up its sleeve - it is, in the present climate, easy to believe and Catholicism is not. So most people, in this country at least, are, in essence, flaccid liberals.

What is, I think, evident from this ideological contrast is that, to the modern imagination, Catholicism is the clearest, biggest enemy of all. In general, Catholicism does not, like the Church of England, go in for wet, liberal compromises or gimmicks to put bums on seats. It does not, in short, shrink from the obvious truth that, if the Son of God did die for our sins, then we have no choice but to be dominated and determined by that fact.

It is this clear rationality that focuses attention on the Catholics for it makes Catholicism the absolute opposite of contemporary liberalism. Inevitably, therefore, when Catholics err - like Archbishop Roderick Wright - or appear to hesitate - as when Cardinal Hume's remarks about celibacy were wholly misunderstood by most of the press - then the critics and amateur canon lawyers dive in, convinced that the edifice of certainty is cracking.

The truth is that Catholicism is not a problem for the contemporary liberal, it is THE problem. It was the primary force in the development of Western civilisation, including liberalism, and yet, now, it is in direct conflict with most aspects of that civilisation. So, in attacking its teachings and practices, we attack something in ourselves and, as any psychiatrist will tell you, self-hatred is the most violent and destructive hatred of all.