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Book Reviews

What an atheist can tell us about the future of Catholicism

24th April 2017

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Roy Hattersley is an interesting man to have written a history of Catholicism in Britain and Ireland. For one thing he is an unabashed atheist who was brought up in a broadly Anglican setting. This would place him as an outsider to the group whose history he is charting. And yet, in the introduction to the book he tells the story of how he had discovered later in life that his father had in fact been a Catholic priest before leaving the Church to marry his wife. This insider aspect, and the fact that Hattersley has a clear admiration in many ways both for many of the figures he discusses, and the Church more broadly, gives the book an interesting character. It is both positive towards, and detached from its subject matter.

This comes out in a number of ways, but perhaps most in the constant thread of the book that what marks Catholics is an absolute and unshakeable certainty in their position. So, in the conclusion, he notes “There is an important argument in favour of inflexibility which is, in its way pragmatic. Catholicism survived the long years of persecution and prejudice because the faith of its followers was reinforced by moral certainty – a condition that provides the confidence that reasonable doubt cannot guarantee”.

This sounds in a number of places as if Catholics are advocates of blind faith in an all powerful Magisterium, unburdened by the weight of reason. Hattersley is an atheist, but that image of Catholicism imbues, it seems to me, a peculiarly protestant perception of Catholic faith. It is not a position, I suspect, easily recognised by many Catholics of themselves, and the idea that Christian faith could be divorced from reason would come as a shock to those following in the intellectual footsteps of Thomas Aquinas.

In a sense this outsider perspective is beneficial to the book as a whole – where a Catholic author might have softened blows, Hattersley does not. In fact that is one of the book’s most refreshing features; unlike so many modern histories that prevaricate and struggle to pass moral judgements or take clear stances, Hattersley is robust in picking his heroes and villains. Many of the particular chapters and their stances on individuals will undoubtedly raise the hackles of historians who specialise in the era in question. No truck is taken, for example, with recent revisionist efforts at rehabilitating the image of Thomas More, who is presented as a fairly unambiguously monstrous figure. On the other hand Hattersley’s admiration for others, like Cardinal Manning, is also apparent.

Throughout, it’s genuinely lively and provocative and, despite running to around 600 pages, remarkably easy to read. It also makes an admirable effort to cover each of the constituent nations of Britain and Ireland, with chapters careful to detail events in Ireland and Scotland as well as in England.

It does present problems, however, and not only according to historical taste and judgement as to one’s heroes and villains. For one thing, it’s quite old-fashioned in focusing the vast majority of its narratives on the great men (almost exclusively) of history. Disproportionate attention is played to goings on in Westminster and the royal court, and not enough paid to the actual lived experience, both everyday and religious, of ordinary Catholics. To that end, the best chapters are on the 19th and early 20th centuries, where the experiences of immigrants in Liverpool, and of the Northern Irish Catholics is dealt with at some length. It is a truism of social history that it becomes easier the later period at which you look (there being a much greater deal of extant evidence for the lives of ordinary people in later periods), but even so the lives of the vast majority of Catholics are ignored for too much of the book.

Some chapters have also been more deeply researched than others. The chapters on the Reformation period, for example, seem not to have taken account of more recent revisionist history of the pre-Reformation Church (notably Eamonn Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars). As a result there is something of a caricature of an utterly corrupt medieval Church which would be disputed by many of the more recent histories of the period.

Some of the later chapters might have benefited from further analysis. For example, while Polish immigration gets some attention in the closing chapters, the broader changing demographics of Catholicism (in London in particular) which have seen huge increases in (among others) Nigerian, Ghanaian, Congolese, Filipino, French and Italians immigrants and corresponding changes in the way the Church operates today, are not looked at.

Instead the last few chapters focus on the decline of the Church and on the sex abuse scandal. The latter is very good, presenting a thorough and summary of that bleak (and ongoing) part of the Church’s history in this country. The former is weaker, and suffers, like so many histories of this sort, in focusing too much on internal causes. The blame for decline is laid at the Church’s attitudes towards sex, contraception and homosexuality. No doubt there’s truth in that, but it’s difficult to see how that could be the whole story, not least when more liberal churches have seen a more rapid decline in recent decades. A point of comparison with other churches, or with other public bodies, might have been instructive.

I would hate this review to seem overly critical. This is a genuinely enjoyable book which is taking on a frankly mammoth task. It is not a history of Catholicism in Britain as I would have written it, and I suspect not as any Catholic historian would have written it. But then, none of them ever have written such a book. One wonders if the reason for that is because, in a sense, while we have been one Church which has survived all these years, it is harder to argue that Catholics have been one people. How many British Catholics can trace a family history in England, Wales or Scotland back to before the Reformation? One suspects very few. A look at the surnames of any current Catholic clergy list or contributors to any Catholic newspaper shows a great many Irish surnames. In a generation or two  perhaps they will look more Polish or West African. Either way, when family histories rarely extend back to more than a few generations within this country perhaps it takes an outsider to write such a history.

The Catholics: The Church and Its People in Britain and Ireland, from the Reformation to the Present Day by Roy Hattersley is published by Chatto & Windus 


Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan

Image by Long Thien from flickr.com available in the public domain