From Rome to Westminster

Conservative Catholics are knocking at the door of the Establishment. Don't let them in
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The Independent Online
Roman Catholics in the news again! This time it is a most peculiar article by William Oddie in this week's Catholic Herald, suggesting that Catholics no longer have a moral obligation to support the monarchy, given that the Queen "used her position to force a divorce on a wronged wife who was anxious not to be divorced".

The specifics of Oddie's frustrated passion for the monarchy are actually less interesting than the fact that the national media should have picked up this piece and paid such attention to it. As they did, two months ago when Alice Thomas Ellis wrote about the grisly decline of Catholic morality thanks to the promotion of some dangerous ecumaniacs. As they have done over the past few years, while the Roman Catholic Church has attracted a wave of, frankly, rather peculiar Anglican converts - including, William Oddie, me, and a minor member of the Royal Family.

We Catholics are getting an awful lot of attention. And we seem to like it. This is a sea change - for over a century the mainland British Catholic position seemed to be to keep our heads down; protest our "normality" as citizens, when necessary; be grateful for Emancipation and shut up. (The obvious disloyalty of our co-religionists across the Irish Sea has been a bit embarrassing, and seems to have developed into a rather nasty anti-Irish racism within British Catholicism.) In fact, last time there was a large-scale movement of Anglicans towards Rome, in the 1840s and Fifties, the recusant Catholic community was distinctly flustered by the militant and flamboyant parading of Catholic externals which these "new boys" insisted on.

Now, however, such discretion and modesty is a thing of the past. Certain right-wing Roman Catholics are bouncing up and down with childish glee on the supposed corpse of the Church of England (cause of death: the relativism of trendy intellectuals, and consequent moral collapse) and on what Oddie calls "Britain's continuing moral and cultural decline". They proclaim that Catholicism can provide all the answers. We alone will hold firm, against the sweeping tide of materialism, immorality, the decline of the family and what the Pope has called the "culture of death". We are the ethical voice of the nation.

This is good copy. Of course, newspapers will take it up. Of course, fretful conservatives will be delighted that an international organisation of considerable power and ancient authority will offer moral reassurance and throw its weight behind the Traditional Family, discipline in schools, "proper" rituals for public events, sexual puritanism, anti-feminism and homophobia. They will turn to this brand of triumphalist Catholicism in much the same way as Mrs Thatcher, feeling unfairly deprived of the support of the Anglican bishops, turned to the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Jacobovits, to give a religious garnish to Family Values and capitalism.

There is a growing group of British Catholics - including Cardinal Hume and several other bishops - that yearns to be part of the Establishment.

However the Catholics who are offering all this are going to charge for it: everyone should note the price, especially Catholics of a less reactionary tendency. Catholics like Oddie, and more gently like Cardinal Hume too, have their eye on The Establishment. (Is it unfair to wonder how much of Oddie's passionate defence of The Princess of Wales's "HRH" is related to the persistent rumours that she is interested in becoming a Roman Catholic? That would be a coup indeed.) A less Irish, less immigrant, more middle- class, more respectable church will oust the Anglicans from their constitutional pre-eminence and will set the moral agenda. If the Church of England will no longer act as "the Conservative Party on its knees", there is a Roman Catholic faction eager to take its place. In exchange for such staunch moral support, perhaps some Roman Catholic bishops might be granted a few seats in the House of Lords, a solid group with the right to vote on sex education, divorce laws, women's rights.

To sell this programme, right-wing Catholics are arguing a number of dubious propositions:

First: there is a Catholic vote to be delivered, by leading Catholics, to the right. This is not true.

Second: all Catholics are, and always have been, terrifically loyal citizens. This is also untrue. Leaving aside the last civil war in mainland Britain - Bonnie Prince Charlie's escapade - and the whole Irish problem, Catholics are not particularly patriotic or "unpatriotic" - it depends. The Catholic Peace Movement, for instance, would hardly see loyalty to the nation state as its focus. There are Catholic socialists, Catholic feminists, Catholic liberals, Catholic gays, Catholics of all possible opinions, whom the haute bourgeoisie does not represent. History, culture and most contemporary theology is on a different trajectory.

Third: Catholics are horribly oppressed, but noble brave and humble. As Oddie put it in his article: "Catholics in this country have had to work harder than anyone else to prove their loyalty to the British State." This is rubbish. Yes, there is discrimination against Catholics. The Orange marches raise painful questions. We are explicitly excluded from the succession. Prince Charles was prevented from hearing a Papal Mass. We were not allowed to celebrate a mass in the Tower of London. But come on!

The loyalty of British Muslims is far harder pushed. They are not protected by the blasphemy laws, which they care about far more than we do; they are not allowed to have their own schools within the state system.

The loyalty of Britons of Caribbean extraction is publicly denounced because they might be tempted to cheer for the wrong side at a cricket match. More importantly, they do not have equal participation in our education or justice systems.

And there is not a snowball's chance in hell that any member of either group will get to have an HRH after their name.

What we're seeing is an intellectually bankrupt ultra-conservatism, desperately looking for moral credibility and hoping they might find it in conservative Catholicism.

The Catholic establishment, bolstered by a group of ex-Anglican clergy and "leading" lay people, well-used to the corridors of power, wants to come in from the cold. They should not be indulged; nor should this absolutist brand of Catholicism be taken too seriously. Catholics are one substantial group in the multi-cultural Britain in which we all need to learn how to live.

That is all we are.