We live in an age where everyone is pigeonholed — by their politics, by their star sign, by what car they drive, what job they do, what football team they support, and which soap they watch. It is sadly yet another vacuous aspect of the modern world that has bled into the Church. So we are now all liberals or conservatives, progressives or traditionalists, new orthodox or old sandal wearers. Plain Catholic is just not enough.
The nonsense of these tags is, I’m sure, obvious to anyone who has tried to fit themselves into any particular mould. I’m very partial to a sung Latin Mass, so that makes me a traditionalist. I am nervous of ecumenical fervour that says we are all the same so let’s just join forces and get on with things. My reservations make me a conservative. Yet I believe passionately in a Church which engages loudly and persistently with questions of social justice. So I’m radical. I’m involved with that shining example of practical, concerned Catholicism, Cafod, so I am (according to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph) “a Leftwing busybody”.
Since I regard the Church’s teaching on some matters of sexual morality as demonstrably being for most Catholics an out-of-touch ideal that has little to do with the realities of everyday lives and how God made us, I’m liberal — or to some less polite fellow churchgoers a heretic. And if I do the logical thing and dispense with the labels and try to shape my own faith by reference to the Church’s teachings, but also in the light of my relationship with God, I’m — horror of horrors for a previous generation — a Protestant. Perhaps I should start a new faction: the Protestant Catholics.
The whole business of these labels is a collective madness that divides us when the divisions are more imagined than real. We have more in common than we have that separates us. Crucially, the advent of tags distracts from what it is all meant to be about, and what does unite us — the really big questions of life, death and suffering which, as a result of all this name-calling and point-scoring, get so little attention that it is no surprise the pews continue to empty.
But the idiocy of it all is best shown by efforts made by people who are old enough to know better (including Joanna Bogle in these pages last week) to claim the new generation of Catholics for one faction or another. To be fair, Joanna was outlining a whole new division to add to the jigsaw — “new orthodoxy”, as she termed it — but she misses the point that what young people (how old it makes me feel to write that) want of the Church is something less precise and more universal than to be dragged into an old battle that they at least have the good sense to see as pointless.
One of the wonderful things about growing up in the faith is that you are constantly changing as life teaches you more and more lessons and you get to know God through prayer and reflection. It is an uneven process: hardly visible when you are a child, helter skelter when you’re a teenager and on into your twenties, slower and more measured as parenthood and middle age beckon, and topped off by a quick racing of the pulse as death finally becomes something that can no longer be ignored.
So there are no timeless truths for teenagers, only disappointments and joys ahead that will make them into adults. The same 18-year-old who today is being dubbed as “new orthodox” because he or she is more interested in the rosary than CND will doubtless in three years’ time be wearing the beads as a necklace and marching up Whitehall to protest at the American invasion of Norway.
It is all part of growing up and we cannot draw any firm and fast conclusions from it. I spent two years, between 16 and 18, attending a charismatic prayer meeting in a room we called Jerusalem in the basement of the Christian Brothers’ house next to my school. I ached to be touched by the Holy Spirit as some in the group said they had been, and I busily copied out cheesy poems and pinned them on the wall because they had helped me sum up what I thought about God. (One of them, I shudder to recall, was the lyrics to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”, only I swapped “Annie” for “God”.) A year later I was at university and avoided the chaplaincy and everything Catholic like the plague. Once I graduated, the cycle continued, though even now I still find myself curiously physically unable to hold out my hands when we say the Our Father at Mass.
Recently I attended a meeting where some young Catholics probably 16 to 24 years old, but my own self-delusion about the ageing process makes me a poor judge spoke eloquently and passionately about where they felt the Church was failing them. It all sounded so familiar, but I hope I was wise enough not to say so.
The Church wasn’t clear about its teaching, they said. It didn’t tell you what to do. It didn’t offer loud and clear guidance, for example, on chastity. In this, at least, they were bolder than my generation.
“But why would we?” the priest sitting next to me remarked. “They’ll only be back in a couple of years to complain we celibates had got it wrong, and they’d probably leave the Church as a result.” Those who extol the virtues of the American-inspired Silver Ring Thing programme for getting youngsters to sign up to avoid sex should take note of the priest’s remarks.
You see this same process of change in new recruits to the priesthood. It is certainly true that the recent products of the seminaries are a different breed from those who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. They reflect a changing tone in the hierarchy of the organisation, and so they are keener on their authority, on their uniform, and on their ability to know what is right and what is wrong. The Church as the people of God is something they managed to dismiss in a first-year essay.
But five or 10 years down the line, after they have experienced life in the raw in a parish, the foibles of dress may remain but all the rest of the certainties will have gone. “To live is to change,” Cardinal Newman told us, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The world changes, the Church changes, and we change. It is what makes all these efforts at categorisation almost laughable. To build a whole theory of the future direction of Catholicism as being bound up with “new orthodoxy” because of the passing enthusiasms of 18year-olds is about as sensible as claiming that the Aids virus can get through the rubber of a condom.
What is true is that what goes on in the world affects the shape and focus of our faith. Sometimes it is a negative influence (the need to have labels, the glorification of sexual licence) and sometimes it is positive — increasing our understanding of the workings of the human mind. Most of the time, though, it is simply something to take into account. If there is a search for certainty among the young at the moment, it may just have something to do with the uncertain times we live in.
Peter Stanford’s Heaven: A Traveller’s Guide is published in paperback by HarperCollins