Is a liberal Catholic the same as an Anglican?
This writer, a confirmed anti-Catholic, admits to being awestruck by the commitment and culture of Catholicism.
- Theo Hobson
- March 14, 2013
What's the appeal of Roman Catholicism to a fairly liberal person? Why don't they jump ship? They say they dislike clerical celibacy, which they largely blame for the abuse scandals. Well, there's a church close at hand that rejects it. They say they want to see the ordination of women. Well, there's a church close at hand that ordains women (more or less). They say they dislike the church's intransigence on homosexuality. Well, there's a church close at hand that has an honest, messy debate about this issue. They say they dislike the church's legalistic approach to birth control, abortion, and various other moral issues. Well, there's a church close at hand that rejects such an approach. They say they dislike the church's authoritarian structure, the monarchical aura of the papacy. Well, you know what.
Why do they stay in a church that is so full of things they dislike, when there is one close at hand that is more or less free of those objectionable things? Presumably they would reply: because, despite everything, the Roman church seems to us the authentic church, and the Anglican church does not. But there is a sector of Anglicanism whose style of worship is scarcely distinguishable from that of Roman Catholicism. Yes, they might reply, but the institution lacks authenticity: it was founded by a randy monarch, and remains confined by its national character. Fair point perhaps, but does it really outweigh the benefits of Anglicanism to a liberal believer? Is this really a reason to stay in an authoritarian, illiberal church – that at least it wasn't founded by Henry VIII? The man had his faults but he wasn't Satan.
So what's Rome's appeal to these people? Is it that they want the prestige of belonging to an exotically large, old tradition? Do they feel a sort of thrill to be connected with an institution that strikes their friends as baffling, mysterious, romantically gothic? Do they like seeing eyebrows raised at dinner parties, when they state their allegiance?
This might be a factor, but it misses the central point. It seems to me that the central appeal of Roman Catholicism is its bold insistence that Christianity must be embodied in culture. For Catholics, religion is not confined to a carefully demarcated sphere, or to the realm of individual faith: it must be holistic, public, all-embracing – it demands to be known as the meaning of cultural life. By contrast, Anglicanism seems to accept the marginalisation of religion, and seems to approve of liberal culture. Religion is a wonderfully rich bit of culture, Anglicanism seems to say, but it's just one bit of culture; it knows its place. No, says Catholicism: the place of religion is everywhere; its role is to be everything.
I first got thinking about the greater cultural richness of Catholicism when Pope John Paul II died: I was fascinated by the spectacle of pilgrimage and devotion that ensued. Among the television coverage was some footage of his visit to Britain in 1982, complete with huge rallies and open-air masses and people fainting with excitement. It struck me that Roman Catholicism has the character of a constant carnival, a world-sized show. Soon afterwards I was in holiday in Spain for Good Friday, and the old walled town was abuzz with amateur theatricals: Roman soldiers on horses, huge lines of people in those eerie pointy KKK-like hoods such as the ones Goya painted. This is something that no form of Protestantism offers: the sense of a whole culture joining together in religious ritual.
I had the same feeling when the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux toured Britain: there was much sceptical press comment about the irrationality of Catholicism, but I looked on with a sort of sacramental envy, as excited crowds queued to be near the dead nun's bones (as I explained at the time).
Incidentally, on the subject of relics, John Henry Newman had a sure grasp of this aspect of Catholicism's appeal. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua he poetically defended popular devotions that made dry Anglicans angry. Devotion to relics should be seen as a powerful form of popular culture, he said. "Why then may not the country people come up, in joyous companies, singing and piping, to see the Holy Coat at Trèves?"
My response is mixed. I chiefly view Roman Catholicism through liberal Protestant eyes: it is an intolerably reactionary version of Christianity. On the other hand, liberal Christianity ought to imitate huge aspects of its cultural richness, of its bold belief in religion as culture. We should not turn away in puritan distaste from the tradition of colourful public religion.
Source: The Guardian