Dreaming Big: Should England Be a Catholic Country Again?

Should England be a Catholic country again? Dream on, I hear you say. But surprisingly, that is the motion for an intriguing debate which is due to take place – or will have already taken place by the time you read this – at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on March 2. The organiser is The Spectator, one of the oldest magazines – if not the oldest – in the world.
Now it is only a debate and debating societies are notorious for proposing outrageous motions for all and sundry to be outraged by. More often than not their objective is to generate heat rather than light. Nevertheless, under the surface of this event we can perhaps detect something more significant. Ten years ago you might have trawled through a good few newspapers and journals before you came across the word Catholic or found anyone in any way preoccupied with the teaching of the Catholic Church. Not so now.
The Pope is coming to Britain in September and just a few weeks ago he was outraging some there when he had the temerity to point out some moral realities in relation to laws being trundled through the mother of parliaments. In its promotion for this debate The Spectator tells us that the Anglican Communion is deeply, and perhaps irrevocably, split and the Catholic Church is offering a berth to any Anglican who wants to convert. In this year of the Pope’s visit, is it time for England to become a Catholic country again, it asks?
The debate may end up giving a resounding thumbs down to the idea but that is of less consequence than the fact that it is being debated at all. The fact is that God is Back. That is the title of a book published recently pointing to the resurgence of religion and belief in God throughout the world. God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, argues against the secularization thesis and claims that there is a global revival of faith with the “free market” approach to religion observed in the USA being successfully employed in many places, especially China.One of the authors of that book is now the editor of another venerable British journal, The Economist. Shhh…he is a Catholic.
This is not the first debate on this kind of topic to take place in London in the past six months – and the other, negative in the extreme, has had a remarkable consequence.
This was the debate organised last October by Intelligence Squared a UK based organisation that stages debates around the world. The motion was: That the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. Against that motion were Christopher Hitchens, one of the high priests of secularism, and Stephen Fry, one of the high priests of the militant gay lobby. Both are brilliant men and brilliant debaters. Another high priest of secularism, Richard Dawkins, was there and even before the night was out he was gloating on his website:
I have just witnessed a rout – tonight’s Intelligence Squared debate. It considered the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, opposing the motion, comprehensively trounced Archbishop Onaiyekan (of Abuja, Nigeria) and Ann Widdecombe, who spoke for it. The archbishop in particular was hopeless.
The voting gives a good idea of how it went. Before the debate, for the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Don’t know: 346. This is how it changed after the debate. For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34. In other words, after hearing the speakers, the number of people in the audience who opposed the motion increased by 774.
The problem (from the Catholic point of view) was that the speakers arguing for the Church as a force for good were hopelessly outclassed by two hugely popular, professional performers. The archbishop had obviously decided that it would work best if he stuck to facts and figures and presented the Church as a sort of vast charitable or “social welfare” organisation. He emphasised how many Catholics there were in the world, and that even included “heads of state”, he said, as if that was a clincher. But he said virtually nothing of a religious or spiritual nature as far as I could tell, and non-Catholics would have been none the wiser about what you might call the transcendent aspects of the Church. Then later when challenged he became painfully hesitant. In the end he mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions. He repeatedly got Ann Widdecombe’s name wrong. The hostility of both the audience and his opponents seemed to have discomfited him.
How did it happen? Apparently the efforts of the organizers to get speakers who might in any way match the anti-Catholic speakers proved difficult and they ended up practically accidentally picking the unfortunate Archbishop, almost by accident – it appears someone bumped into him at an airport or something like that – and throwing him into the lions’s den with a considerably less happy outcome than when Daniel was landed there.
But the whole debacle has proved to be a wake-up call for English Catholics. After the rout The Tablet screamed – well, probably not; that’s not its style – and asked what could be done to put this right. Out of that came the suggestion from the Benedictine Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison, that a modern-day version of the Catholic Evidence Guild, a “speakers bureau” of talented and well-equipped polemicists who were unafraid of articulating the Church’s positions on issues of faith and morals, notably in quick-fire settings such as public debates and media interviews. The original guild was founded in 1918 and was instrumental in giving the world such luminaries as Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward.
When the notorious The Da Vinci Code hit the bookstalls, and later the cinemas, in the last decade three Catholics came together to form “The Da Vinci Code Response Group” to set the Christian and Catholic record straight for the multitudes who were swallowing that load of rubbish hook line and sinker. The three consisted of Abbot Jamison and two media men, Austen Ivereigh and Jack Valero. The three have now come together again, along with Kathleen Griffin, formerly of the BBC, to give substance to Abbot Christopher’s suggestion and initiate a project which they are calling Catholic Voices. Ivereigh is a Guardian contributor and European affairs correspondent for the Catholic journal America in the US. Valero is a director of Opus Dei in Britain and works in the prelature’s UK communications office.
The objective of Catholic Voices is to form and nurture a team of 20 articulate speakers, both men and women, of varied ages and backgrounds, who are able to respond rapidly and convincingly to media requests for commentators on Catholic issues. The immediate objective is to prepare this team in advance of the Pope’s visit in September and to be able to deal authoritatively with theological and ethical “hot-button” issues which frequently come under the spotlight “especially those in which the Catholic Church and contemporary society appear at loggerheads.
The approach of Catholic Voices will be to avoid two traps which Catholics seem at times to fall into: an excessive dogmatism and defensiveness on the one hand and an excessive naiveté on the other. They think this dogmatism comes in part from an attitude which assumes that the media is hostile and pagan. This leads to Catholics either refusing to engage with the media or doing so in a way that refuses to concede anything to the media’s own idiom. At the other extreme of naiveté you have those who go all out to evangelise the media and who seek to avoid all harsh and challenging questions with which the media confronts them.
“Our approach”, they say, “is one that takes seriously the media’s role as the agency of accountability in contemporary democratic society, and which needs to understand its idiom. This project seeks to enable Catholics to articulate the reality of the Church and its beliefs in ways that are straightforward and transparent. We should not be overly concerned with persuading people to assent to the Catholic faith (the ‘evangelization’ strategy) but with ensuring that they understand the Church’s teachings. Our task, in other words, is to communicate the reality of Catholicism, and to combat misunderstandings and myths.”
So, with the anti-Christian lobbies mobilising to arm themselves against the impact of the visit of the Pope, and the Secular Society trying to prevent this from being an official state visit, Catholic Voices has it work cut out for it. But people are not stupid. When they don’t bother to think they can be superficial and shallow in their judgements. But when they are given something which will really engage their minds they very often come to the right conclusions. Catholic Voices might do just that – and if it does who knows just what miracle might happen. It may not have happened by March 2nd, but maybe in a few decades from now we might be looking at a different religious landscape in “England’s green and pleasant land”.
To return to dreams. In that famous old weepie, A Star is Born, Norman Maine asked Esther what her dream was. She said that she could see a talent scout from a big record company coming into the club where she was singing and he would sign her…and then he’ll make a record…”
“And then?” Maine asked.
“The record’ll become No. 1 on the hit parade….be played on juke boxes all over the country…and I’ll be made. End of dream”.
Maine then said, “There’s only one thing wrong with that”.
“I know.” Esther replied, “It won’t happen.”
“No, it might happen very easily,” he said.”Only the dream isn’t big enough….Don’t settle for the little dream. Go for the big one.”
She took the plunge, quit her day job, and became a star.

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