On Being a Catholic

[Posted Friday March 4, 2016]

This Blog is called “The Compartments”. I planned to create at least one page for each of the significant compartments in my life, things that define me, things that my friends and family, and passing strangers, know me for. There are things that I do, things that I’m into, the influences of school and university, and where I grew up (and still live, after all these years). Three months have gone by since this Blog was set up, we’re exactly halfway through the season of Lent, and I feel it’s time to write about being a Catholic.

Some of my best friends are anti-religion. They are secular, humanist, atheist. They’re not agnostic or undecided: they’re sure. The friend that I have seen most regularly in the thirty-plus years since we left university is active in humanist and secular circles. He has also attended baptisms, and my mother’s funeral, in my local Catholic church in West London. It’s the church where I was baptised, celebrated my First Holy Communion, made my first Confession, and received the sacrament of Confirmation (aged 10 – we did it earlier back then). It’s also where my parents got married back in the 1950s, having arrived here (separately) from Ireland, and where my wife and I were married in 2001. My wife is Jewish, as I have now noted many times on this Blog.

I continue to attend mass (biographical fact) and continue to be a Catholic (opinion, or biographical fact?). There are many reasons for this, but even if there were not, these two big reasons would be enough: first, it’s what my mother wanted; secondly, it’s in recognition of my Irish Catholic heritage. By continuing to go to mass, and bringing up my children as Catholics, I am honouring my mother’s wishes (she died in 1997) and upholding the Irish Catholic tradition. And my children are still Jewish, by Jewish law, so in my view they have the best of both worlds.

If you’re not sure how Irish Catholicism differs from its counterparts in other countries, and on other continents, please read Thomas Cahill’s “How the Irish saved Civilization”. Yes, that’s right. The Irish saved Civilization, and this book tells you how. If your background is Irish Catholic it might make you feel better about the 1600-year history of Christianity in “the Emerald Isle”. Christianity took hold there as the Roman Empire was crumbling. It was a choice, not something imposed by Rome. Previously war-like tribesmen put down their weapons and took up the Bible instead. Many of them devoted their lives to transcribing religious and other works (hence the Book of Kells, and other illuminated manuscripts). In this way, while the libraries of the Roman Empire were being looted and burnt, just as the Dark Ages descended, European literary treasures (not just religious texts) were being preserved and copied by hand, on the outer edge of Europe.

In addition to my conscious, explicit reasons for continuing to practise the religion of my childhood (and here I will adopt a language pattern that usually annoys me) “I see no reason not to” continue to be a Catholic. (This kind of double negative is, I believe, called litotes, pronounced lie-toe-tease.) By the same reasoning, if I hadn’t been brought up Catholic I would probably “see no reason” to become a Catholic. The key word in this paragraph for me is “practise” (or its noun form, “practice”). Going back through the history of the human race most religions have been about practice, not about “being spiritual” or even about faith. That’s good enough for me. We practise the things that our ancestors did. It was good enough for my mother, and it’ll do for me.

Last autumn our church put on a series of discussions built around the question “Why?” There was a screening first that discussed man’s “relentless curiosity”, our need to ask “Why” all the time. It wasn’t for me. I realized many years ago that this idea of “relentless curiosity” doesn’t apply to everyone. Curiosity might be over-rated. My TV set works. So does this laptop. I don’t need to take them apart and find out why. Other people worked all that stuff out long ago, so I don’t have to.

There’s a balance between questioning everything and questioning nothing, and religious practice should leave you somewhere in the middle. If you are the kind of person who questions everything you might not find enough satisfactory answers, either in human or spiritual relationships. If you are the kind of person who questions nothing, well you probably wouldn’t have read this far.

Some people automatically associate Catholicism with priests who abuse children. I write this in the week that the Best Picture Oscar has been won by “Spotlight”, about the Boston Globe’s investigations into clerical abuse. However much these and other abuses were covered up, and however much the church’s hierarchy of bishops, archbishops and cardinals knew about it, the key thing for me is that individual priests knew that what they were doing was wrong. They were not doing the work of the church. Like the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23: 2-3) they did not practise what they preached. Adults should always take responsibility for their own actions. Taking responsibility for the actions of other adults is another matter.

It may be a geographical and chronological anomaly but in my lifetime none of the priests in my parish have been linked with any child abuse. There was a choirmaster (not a member of the clergy) who spent time in prison for having sex with under-age boys, a school caretaker (also not a member of the clergy) who died before his crimes were discovered, and at my (non-Catholic) school a teacher also went to prison for having sex with a teenage boy. If similar crimes were discovered about priests who had served in my parish, would that put me off going to mass? Probably not. Nobody took their children out of my secondary school after that teacher went to prison. I still enjoy BBC television and radio programmes even though it appears that the BBC provided an environment where serial abusers like Jimmy Savile could get away with their crimes for decades.

Finally, I’ll mention Pascal’s Wager as a philosophical justification for believing in God, or at least acting as if He exists. This idea (from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal) suggests that it is rational to believe in God, to act as if He exists. The stakes are too high to behave otherwise. Even if there is only a tiny chance that God exists the consequences of being wrong, and not believing in Him, could be truly terrible: you could face an eternity in Hell. If there is any chance (however small) that you might end up being tormented by devils forever Pascal’s Wager advises that you should lead a good life and believe in God. The Catholic church doesn’t seem to focus too much on Hell any more. I haven’t heard a fire and brimstone homily for a long time. But if Hell does exist there’s probably a strong chance that Jimmy Savile is there, paying for the terrible things he did in his lifetime.