Press Column

Would anyone have known there was a Catholic revival in this country were it not for the Daily Telegraph? If there are two causes to which it gives unremitting prominence and support, they are Irish Protestantism and English Catholicism. It is an axiom of every story in which they are mentioned that Basil Hume was a saint and Gerry Adams is an incarnate fiend. Both these propositions are probably true. But they are not self-evident and certainly not shared by everyone. So it was interesting to see the less controversial one examined, if only indirectly, by the historian Niall Ferguson, on the Telegraphís op-ed page. "I found the public reaction to the Cardinalís death a little surprising. A newspaper-reading visitor form Poland might have been forgiven for thinking that he was in another Roman Catholic country."

It takes a historian to notice what is missing fro this picture: not the upsurge in Catholic sentiment, but the lack of resistance to it. After all, as religious stories go, the Cardinalís funeral was much smaller than Dianaís. But there was none of the principled resistance to Catholicism which would have come naturally to some people a hundred years ago. "The question is how far this represents the growth of tolerance, if not indifference, towards religious schism; and how far it represents a positive shift in the direction of Roman Catholicism."

On balance, he plumped for the second hypothesis, which was interesting, for there were figures to back it up. He claims that 9.8% of the population of the UK is Catholic. This is in line with official Catholic estimates of their being 4,100,000 Catholics in England and Wales (of whom about a quarter show up in the Mass attendance figures). The UK Christian handbook, with its admittedly Protestant bias, gives a figure well under 2m, and a Christian total for the whole population of 12-13%. In any case, there has been more or less a doubling in the Catholic proportion of the population this century, according to Ferguson. How this hangs together with the undoubted and precipitate decline in Catholic numbers since around 1970 is nowhere explained. Ferguson seems to believe that the growth is a result of steady conversions, a belief clearly strengthened by devout non-attendance at Catholic churches: "In todayís Britain, with its post-religious non-culture of sport and superstores, it is not surprising that people are attracted by Catholicism. It emphasises age against the cult of youth, authority against anarchy. And confession to a priest is cheaper than psychoanalysis."

This does not make him an enthusiast: "The link between Protestantism and progress ó especially the progress of literacy, material well-being, and scientific knowledge ó may not be as clear-cut as Max Weber thought. But the link between Catholicism and stagnation does seem suspiciously close. It is more than a coincidence that the economy of southern Ireland has at last caught up with the rest of the British Isles in the wake of a collapse in church attendance." A sentiment Unionist to pass must enough in the Daily Telegraph: especially as it was softened by the piety of his conclusion: "No doubt, as the life of Basil Hume well illustrated, Catholicism does more good than harm in a developed society like ours"

Of course, for most of the papers, the main Catholic news of the week was Utter Nunsense, as the Daily Mirror headlines its story of Sister Virtus, the nun who was woken by a London Transport inspector when she fell asleep on a bus and crossed the Thames into a zone where her ticket was not valid. LT insisted on prosecuting her, even though she offered to pay the fine; the chairman of the magistrates threw out the claim and conditionally discharged her for six months. Sister Virtus had been up praying since five am, the court was told, and worked in a small community on a sink housing estate when she was not being a hospital chaplain. The sum that LT took her to court to extract was one pound. There are some stories which entirely defeat the satirist. Itís probably true though, that the well-dressed fare dodger will be wearing nunís habits next year; and none will be asked for their tickets.

Another story to defeat commentary comes from the Sunday Telegraph, which reported that the separation of church and State in the USA has been carried to the point where witchcraft has been recognised as a religion which may be practised on US bases. John Machate, a spokesman for the Military Pagan Network said "Everyone seems to think we are like the Wicked Witch of the West with green skin. Wicca is nothing like that. We are not baby killers." Why join the air force then?

Apparently the real problem is that military regulations frown on nakedness and the witchesí full-moon services lack something, when conducted in battle dress. The witches have a sad tale of discrimination to tell: "A marine sergeant at Camp LeJeune, North Caroline, was carpeted in the presence of his troops by his commanding officer for being a witch." To have been defeated by such an army is enough to make anyone feel a twinge of sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic.

Only the Sunday Times reported the departure, a year early, of the Prime Ministerís appointments secretary., John Holroyd. "His departure follows a two-year war of attrition during which criticism of Holroyd by Blairís staff has grown apace." This is of course spun to include Westminster Abbey. The story now claims that two of the canons there went to Downing Street to protest at Dr Carrís nomination, "even before his appointment was confirmed." This, if true, is doubly damning for poor old Martin Neary, since the canons were unanimous in sacking him, whatever their views of Dr Carr. Of course, I have no reason to suppose that the story is true, except that it appeared in the Sunday Times.

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