Francis Phillips on a timely book which hails the achievements of heroic English Catholics English Catholic Heroes
BY JOHN JOLLIFFE GRACEWING, £9.99
The purpose of this book is laudable: to introduce a new generation to the great men (a further volume is planned for women) from their Catholic heritage and to demonstrate the lack of balance in the Whig interpretation of history.
Beginning with Cuthbert, Aidan and Bede, it spans well over 1,000 years and joins other recent scholars in a vigorous re-examination of our shared past. Iraqi civilisation, it is said, goes back to the Garden of Eden; ours, though not of such antiquity, produced formidable individuals who shaped our country for good ever since Christianity came to these islands.
Some of these are obviously heroes: all the Tudor martyrs who laid down their lives for the old religion, so cruelly wrested from them. Here are saints Thomas More and John Fisher, Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion.
Less well-known, perhaps, are the “white” martyrs, such as Cardinal Pole and Bishop Challoner who laboured long and seemingly unproductively to keep alive the flame of faith in England. Pole’s story, told by Lucy Beckett, is especially tragic. She links him to St Thomas Becket “another exile who had defended the authority of the Church against an English king”. This is true, though I have problems with Becket, perhaps because as a student I acted in Murder in the Cathedral and have T S Eliot’s poignant, poetic equivocations still ringing in my ears, and because Henry II was a much greater king, for all his choler, than Henry VIII.
William Sheils, on Challoner, ably demonstrates that “his was not a heroic life in the conventional sense” but a long and disciplined life in the service of the Church. John Lingard, the priest-historian, and AWN Pugin, are also given proper recognition: Lingard for his painstaking and pioneering work in examining historical sources, and Pugin for his impact on 19th-century architecture and decoration. He was a true romantic genius: ferociously energetic, devoutly medieval and highly eccentric; he felt “a populace that lived and prayed in Gothic buildings would function better as a society”.
The chapter on the 9th Lord Petre demonstrates the true noblesse oblige of its subject, who spent his vast fortune in building Catholic churches. Its author, James Stourton, also explains the curious tension that has existed for centuries between so-called Cisalpine and Ultramontane Catholics; even today there is an attitude among some that “we are English, after all, and therefore don’t need to take Roman edicts too seriously”.
Newman and Manning, those exceptional churchmen of the Victorian age, are obviously included. Manning’s chapter, told by Robert Gray, is easily the wittiest: he writes of “worshippers from the washing classes” at Brompton Oratory who viewed with distaste the malodorous Irish and has an affectionate, if humorous, attitude towards his subject: “For the first time in 300 years the Catholic Church was obliged to witness within its ranks the formidable spectacle of a Balliol man on the make.” Manning often skirmished with the “Upper Ten Thousand”. The oddest chapter is the agnostic A N Wilson on Belloc; he manages to pay him several backhanded compliments which do not show Belloc in any kind of heroic light; and if Belloc is included, why not G K Chesterton? Jolliffe feels that the latter’s “verbal somersaults and paradoxes” are not equal to the achievements of Belloc – but Chesterton was much more than a playful stylist and heroic in more than his girth.
The most sympathetic account is Abbot Aidan Bellenger’s chapter on Dom David Knowles; he describes Knowles’s scholarly eminence while not fudging his ambivalent relationship to the Benedictines.
Finally, we come to Leonard Cheshire and Cardinal Hume. Cheshire is definitely within the book’s parameters; for the legacy of Hume within the English Church, I feel it is still too early to say. That he was holy is undoubted, but Archbishop Vincent Nichols’s chapter somehow reads like a publicity handout – and why is it the case that “for this, too, he is a Catholic hero” when Hume receives the OM from the Queen?
Hume wanted to make Catholicism respectable, almost to join the Establishment. In these recent decades of aggressive secularism it is more important, surely, to be a voice of contradiction.