WHY SO FEW IN PUBLIC LIFE? C.H.' Reporter
WHY are there so few Catholics in proportion to our numbers active in public life? Is this an effect of the "ghetto mentality"—a hangover from the penal days when no Catholic could he prominent and all any Catholic wanted was to be left in peace?
I put these questions last week to Mr. John Biggs-Davison, a convert who has been Conservative M.P. for Chigwell since 1955. He answered with another question : "Are there too many specifically Catholic organisations where these are not strictly needed, where, in fact, Catholics should be playing their part in larger national organisations?"
The ghetto mentality, he felt, was one aspect of the question: the fear of being prominent, of inviting reprisals "The other side of the medal is what one could term an inferiority complex, an insistence on mathematically correct representation of Catholics— people who say: 'Oh dear, there are only so many M.P.s.'
"But there is also a failure of Catholics as a whole to realise that they are part of—in fact, the authentic repository of what is best in—our national tradition. This aloofness gives support to what one can term the 'Italian mission' attitude on the part of non-Catholics, the feeling that Catholics don't really belong to the nation.
"All this is bound to affect the willingness of the community as a whole to accept the leadership of Catholics.
"What is needed, where it is possible, is more of a common Christian front, though this is made difficult by the existence of the Church of England claiming to be the Catholic Church in England.
"Thus the schools question should never have come up as a question of Catholic schools. It should have arisen as a question of the natural law and social justice.
"Where a specifically Catholic body is not necessary, Catholics should be among the leaders in national organisations. Sometimes we like to be exclusive and have our own show, but sometimes we have to be for the simple reason that everybody else is wrong."
Asked if the recent retirement of Christopher Hollis from Parliament in disgust—an interesting parallel to Hilaire Belloc's resignation earlier this century—had influenced would-be Catholic politicians, he said he did not think that this had much effect on Catholics as such, "Mr. Hollis rather perhaps symbolises the great disillusionment of recent years with Parliament. What he did had a general influence which was not confined to Catholics.
"If it is a fact that Catholics thinking of public life have more integrity than others—and this may or may not he RO---then they would be more susceptible to Mr. Hollis's criticism."
Mr. Biggs-Davison thought that the picture of politicians as sheep had been a little overdone, and that anyway this was all the more reason for men of integrity to enter politics. Certainly, he told me, the tide of disillusionment was already receding with the new Parliament.
"There is more emphasis on the backbencher's role as a check on the executive," he said. "This is partly owing to a larger majority giving greater scope to non-conformity. But it is partly also due to the realisation by the leaders that Parliament's prestige has been shaken, and Parliamentary Government is, I suppose, the political ideology of the British Commonwealth."