The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 – 2000

Richard Griffiths writes in this 2010 book:

* The concerns of English Catholic literature on the whole failed to mirror those of its French equivalent. The reason for this lies mainly in the position, and history, of the Catholic Church within the two countries and the very different opponents it had to face in each. In France the last three decades of the nineteenth century saw a strong revival in religious values, with many Catholic conversions among the intelligentsia and a flowering of literary and artistic output of a Catholic nature. To a large extent, this was a reaction against the tyranny of institutionalized atheism and anticlericalism, in the urban society of the nascent Third Republic. The vast claims of nineteenth- century positivism dominated this society, which had become imbued with the belief that Catholicism was purely for the uncultivated and ignorant and that it was impossible to be both intelligent and Christian. At the same time, politically, anticlerical laws had become the hallmark of the Third Republic. However, in the space of a few years a new Catholic intelligentsia, made up mainly of recent converts, had made religion once more respectable.

* The British converts’ situation was very different. They were mostly converts not from atheism or agnosticism, but from another form of Christianity, Anglicanism. And where in France, despite all historical vicissitudes,
Catholicism had remained the religion of the vast majority of Christians, in Britain Catholicism was very much a minority religion, which had been kept by force of law in an inferior position for centuries until the early nineteenth. The major concern therefore, for British Catholic writers, was not with what differentiated Christianity from the secular society of the time, but with what differentiated Catholicism from other forms of the Christian religion. The miraculous and the mystical had a lesser part to play. In their place came a concentration on specifically Catholic views of the sacraments and of the priestly role. The authority of the Church, also, was continually contrasted with what appeared the ‘free- for- all’ of the Anglican position.
Secular politics played a lesser role for most of these writers (with certain conspicuous exceptions), than for their French equivalents, until the interwar period. At the same time there was a concern with class and social position that would seem strange to French eyes.

* Nowadays, most people are aware of the grievous persecution that was suffered by British Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the tortures and executions of priests for celebrating the Mass, and of those who harboured them, and the very large fines and punishments enacted on those (the ‘recusants’) who refused to attend the compulsory Anglican services. It is perhaps less well known that after the times of physical persecution, the Catholic population continued to suffer under a series of laws, known collectively as the ‘penal laws’, which inflicted various civil disabilities upon them… These laws, which effectively removed Catholics from public life and severely restricted their religious life, received some palliation in the late eighteenth century… It was only after some years of campaigning for Catholic emancipation that the 1829 Catholic Relief Act removed most disabilities.

* The Oxford Movement was a group of Anglicans, based mainly in Oxford, which set out to restore the Church of England to what they saw as its mainline position in the universal Church. They reacted against the extreme
Protestantism, and the latitudinarianism, of much nineteenth- century Anglicanism and aimed to restore the High Church character of the seventeenthcentury Church. In the process, they stressed those characteristics that the
Church of England and Catholicism had in common. They believed ‘that the Church of England held an intermediate position, represented by the patristic tradition, as against modern Romanism on the one hand and modern Protestantism on the other’.6 Leading lights in the movement included John Henry Newman, Edward Bouverie Pusey, John Keble and Hurrell Froude.

* The situation of the Catholic Church in Britain in the early nineteenth century was later to be graphically described by Cardinal Vaughan:

“Marks of persecution were fresh upon her body, the smell of fire was still upon her clothing. Her organisation was abnormal and missionary, reduced to its lowest form, as though England had been China or Japan. After ten centuries of public praise her voice was low; her divine services cut down to their bare essentials; many of her distinctive devotions and practices were either forgotten or conducted in private, and, as it were, in silence, and with closed doors. No kind of uniform, no outward mark of distinction in her ministers was visible. The English Church was like a ship on an angry sea, close reefed and battened down, exposing as little surface as possible to the stiff gale which was still only lessening.”

* Catholics also took delight in pointing to the aristocratic nature of the Catholic religion, as opposed to ‘middle- class’ Anglicanism.

* The French Catholic novel has been described as having had three major strands. The ‘pious’, or ‘sentimental’ novel, a sub- literature of no great value; the ‘conversion novel’, of which Huysmans’ En route (1895) was the prototype, followed by other works such as Ernest Psichari’s Le Voyage du Centurion (1915); and the most widespread form, the ‘miraculous’, or ‘mystical novel’, in which the framework of the realist novel served as a
backdrop for mystical and often miraculous events. A far less prominent strand was that exemplified by some of the novels of Paul Bourget, in their examination of human dilemmas relating to faith (it was this strand, minor
in France, that was to become the dominant one in Britain).

* Converts from Anglicanism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were above all attracted by the certainty and authority of the Catholic Church’s teachings and its decisions. This seemed a safe anchor amidst all
the uncertainties they had felt until this time. They tended to contrast this with what they regarded as the free- for- all of Anglicanism.

* ‘English Catholics are just Protestants, protesting against Protestantism.’ D. H. Lawrence’s statement has a certain amount of truth in it. It was above all Anglicanism that obsessed the English Catholic writers, however.

* [Hilaire Belloc’s] cynical view was that British imperialism was a crooked scheme directed by Jewish fi nanciers. In his four savage political novels, which were written between 1904 and 1910 starting with Emmanuel Burden, a central figure was the Jewish financier I. Z. Barnett, whose tentacles reached into every area of the national life and who finally ended up as the Duke of Battersea. Robert Speaight rightly compares Belloc’s depiction of him to ‘some savage anti- Semitic caricature of Forain’s illustrating some diatribe of Drumont’s.’17 This fictional character stands for the Oppenheims, the Beits, the Wernhers, those speculators and investors in
the mines of the Transvaal for the preservation of whose commercial interests the South African War, in Belloc’s view, had been fought.

* G. K. Chesterton shared many of Belloc’s attitudes in relation to the Jews. Much of his verse on their subject
contains the same spirit of false jocularity that characterized Belloc’s most vulgar efforts… Chesterton’s hatred of capitalists led him, like Belloc, to a mistrust of Jews whom he felt were at the centre of the system.

* By the late 1920s there had been considerable enthusiasm for Italian Fascism throughout Europe and nowhere more so than in Catholic circles. Ignoring the fact that Fascism on the Italian model had been in its origins a secular movement, hostile to the Church, foreign observers tended to take the Lateran Pacts of 1929 (which had essentially been an attempt at a pragmatic solution to Italian Church- State relations) as a sign that this dictatorship was based on Christian principles.

Fascism appealed particularly to the Right- leaning facet of Catholic political thought that we have been examining. Belloc, in particular, regarded Mussolini from the early 1920s onwards ‘with a besotted admiration which was undiminished until his death’.23 (Chesterton, however, detached as always, viewed Fascism with a much more cautious eye). But there is no denying the attraction felt generally in establishment circles throughout
Britain for the new dictator,24 and Catholics were at this stage merely one group among many.

* Fascism, for him, meant a return to the Catholic Middle Ages and was an attack on ‘the ideas to which the Renaissance gave birth and which have dominated the world for several centuries’.27 It stood for ‘a sense of moral purpose’ rather than any specific political tendency, whether of Left or Right. Italy, said Barnes, had been in a terrible state, but Mussolini’s moral power had filled the Italian people with moral strength. Britain, which was in a similar state, required a similar solution.

By the early 1930s, a number of politically aware Catholic writers and journalists in Britain were similarly writing of the need to imitate this model of government (the economic crisis having led many to believe that democracy was doomed).

* Throughout the 1930s there was to be a strong element of support for ‘Mediterranean fascism’ among British Catholics, who indiscriminately placed Mussolini, Salazar and Franco in the same category…Nazism, however, presented a completely different problem for most of these people. Admirers of Mussolini such as Jerrold, Petrie and Belloc recoiled at the ‘barbarism’ of Nazi methods and beliefs.

* George Orwell assessed public opinion in 1944: ‘Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro- Fascist, both objectively and subjectively’.

* The ‘Radical Right’ and its influence on Belloc and Chesterton was the strongest strain in British Catholic political thought in the early twentieth century…

* Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) presents something of a contrast with Graham Greene. Greene stands as a turning- point in twentieth- century Catholic literature, looking back to what had preceded him, but also looking forwards, as
his career progressed, in new directions which, though some have seen them as an abandonment of the Catholic novel, were in fact a restructuring of it in new and vital ways. Waugh, on the other hand, represents the culmination of a tradition, its finest flowering – but his work is essentially a dead-end.

* Brideshead Revisited was first published in 1945. In the preface to the revised edition of 1960, Waugh described its theme as being ‘the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.’9 Unlike so many other Catholic novels, however, this one does not assail the reader ‘up front’ with an obvious message and the theme only gradually emerges during the course of the novel. Indeed, so subtly is it introduced that many people, enjoying the novel for other reasons, have failed to realize how Christian a work it is. When Waugh went to Hollywood in 1947 to discuss a film version of the novel, he noted that the writer who would be adapting it for the screen ‘[saw] it purely as a love story’ and that none of those involved saw ‘the theological implication’.1

* Sebastian, the drunken wastrel, is tortured not so much by the actions of his mother (which are merely ancillary), as by a sense of loss (expressed through a sense of loss of childhood, but in fact something far deeper) – and by what Cordelia perspicaciously perceives as a vocation that he was resisting.21 After
many vicissitudes, he eventually tries to get taken on as a lay- brother at a monastery in North Africa, but is not accepted because of his alcoholism. Finally (just as Charles de Foucauld had in Jerusalem after his conversion), he ends up as a humble doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, ‘a sort of under- porter’.22 As Cordelia puts it, the Superior ‘was a very holy old man and recognized it in others’. Gently, Cordelia explains to Ryder that what he has to understand about Sebastian is that he is holy and that his suffering has been necessary: ‘One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is – no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him . . .’

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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