The State of the English Church Through a Novelist’s Eyes

I recently read an excellent essay called “A Time of Trial” on the state of English Catholicism by Piers Paul Read from his book Hell and Other Destinations (pages 83-92 here). Although a few of his comments are specific to England, his overall evaluation is largely true of the American Church as well. His tone is critical but fair, and he isn’t prone to overly emotional language. He says of the Tablet, London’s Catholic paper, that it is a venue “in which there are often excellent articles by Catholics writers, journalists and academics,” but which “does not escape the charge of moral mediocrity. Indeed, in many ways it exemplifies the intellectual malaise that has beset English Catholicism in the past few decades. In zealous pursuit of certain objectives (ecumenicism, liberationism, feminism, and moral relativism in sexual ethics) in what purports to be ‘the Spirit of Vatican II’, has most assiduously combatted over the several decades the true traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.” The same, it seems, could be said on this side of the pond of publications such as Commonweal or America, the latter of which once operated under the direction of one Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., in his younger days.

Read is unafraid to place blame where appropriate, but he’s careful not to assign fault to entirely one source. Much of the problem, he’s argued, is that there’s so much in-fighting amongst those who desire to be authentically Catholic that when dissident come along to promote heresy, there’s no unified front to stop it. He lists the squabbling parties in the British Church: Irish immigrants who don’t trust English Catholics or intellectuals, English “Old Believers” who view their Catholicism as a family heirloom more than an authentic faith, English intelligentsia more interested in fads than Holy Tradition. He spends a decent amount of time addressing the Catholicity of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and their publicly known shortcomings.

What Read doesn’t do is ascribe the whole mess to some cabal or conspiracy (Masons being the usual suspects for this theory, I suppose). Rather, it’s regular individuals who fall prey to the glamor of some fresh evil; their small actions, their prejudices of philosophical leanings, impacting much more than they ever intended. I’m struck how evil can be at once glamorous and banal, as these seemingly insignificant indulgences cause serious harm. And Read illustrates this with a shockingly personal example of how an Anglican vicar publicly claimed that seeing Read in line for Communion was the last straw in his consideration of the Catholic Church. He simply couldn’t accept any club which would have Read as a member. Read humbly described it as “a salutary reminder to Catholics that they themselves are often the chief obstacles to other people’s conversion.”

I don’t suppose that Piers Paul Read is the first, or the last, voice on present troubles within the Church, but he’s certainly got an interesting perspective.

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