I grew up in a traditional English family, surrounded by cousins, chivvied by aunts, presided over by my grandmother, who insisted on Sunday church. We weren’t religious but Anglicanism (of a 19th-century sort) was in the air. We read the Revd Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and if I thought about Jesus it was in an English setting. I imagined him barefoot walking through fields, rescuing the lambs that had fallen into cattle grids.
Our family viewed Catholicism with suspicion. For us it was voodoo: foreign and crowded with unnecessary intercessors. The aunts would tell us that our great-great-grandmother had refused to let Catholics in the house and we repeated this story in order to show off both our own relative open-mindedness and our ancestor’s basic good sense.
In our Spectator survey, several well-known men and women reveal a subject on which they changed their minds. I must have changed my mind about Catholicism — that would have to be my answer — because I converted and became a Catholic ten years ago, but it doesn’t feel like a change so much as having two separate notions running at the same time. I can still summon my old impression of the Catholic Church — kitsch, gloomy, misogynistic — but then there’s how life inside it feels too. It’s like the Tardis or C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe: an unpromising little doorway that happens to open into a whole new land.
It’s the same with other Church things. Transubstantiation, celibate priests, active saints, venerated bones, the dominance of Mary: from a distance, to me they all seem absurd, distasteful. But take a few steps towards them, and they begin to make frightening sense. Oddly, the more baroque the belief, the more easily I found it slid, on closer inspection, into a coherent bigger picture. It’s like an existential jigsaw. And in my experience of it, Catholicism just goes on like this, proving me wrong. It’s extremely disconcerting.
I can still summon my old impression of the Catholic Church: kitsch, gloomy, misogynistic
Long after I joined the Church, for instance, I held onto the assumption that Mother Teresa was a bad lot. I had admired Christopher Hitchens back in the day and happily adopted his belief that she was a fraud. ‘And,’ I often told people, without remembering where I’d picked it up, ‘did you know, Mother Teresa refused to help anyone who wasn’t a Catholic?’
Not long after St Teresa of Calcutta was canonised in 2016, I met a priest called Fr Leo Maasburg, who had travelled with her for many years and written a memoir about it. Fr Leo kindly gave me a copy (Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait) and I picked it up idly earlier this year. ‘-Mother Teresa helped the poor, the drug addicts and the Aids patients,’ I read. ‘She helped Hindus and Muslims and also Christians and atheists, when they were dying. Her love knew no boundaries; she made no distinctions as to race or religion, social status or world view. In that way she showed us what Christian love of our neighbour is supposed to be.’ Oh, right.
The more I read of Fr Leo’s book, the stranger my former position seemed. Once, it made sense to me to accuse her of being ‘in love with suffering’ and think a deathbed baptism tantamount to ‘forced conversion’. Now I can’t see what I was fussing about. Death can be unbearable. What’s wrong with scooping up the dying, the contagious, the untouchable, and keeping them company while they go? And if you think they might go to Hell unless you say a prayer over them, then isn’t it your duty to do just that? Perhaps C. Hitchens was in denial about the reality of death. But: ‘If you judge someone then you have no time to love them,’ says Mother T in Fr Leo’s book. All right then, Christopher Hitchens, rest in peace.
My feelings about Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, run in the opposite direction. It’s everyone else I think who should change their minds about him.
Because I wasn’t a Catholic I’d never heard of Cardinal Ratzinger until a friend gave me a book-length interview with him by the German journalist Peter Seewald. I didn’t know that he was widely considered to be an unbending right-winger who covered up for paedos in the Church. I just read the book and found my own confusing and fragmented feelings reflected back at me as a complete picture. Why believe? asks Seewald. Replies Ratzinger: ‘Faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory. It’s easy to see today how a world empty of God is also increasingly consuming itself, how it has become a wholly joyless world. The great joy comes from the fact that there is this great love, and that is the essential message of faith. You are unswervingly loved.’
The Two Popes, out now in a cinema near you (and available on Netflix), presents Pope Benedict in a softer light. Here he’s the fusty foil to radical, popular Pope Francis. ‘I just try to be myself,’ says Francis in the film. ‘Whenever I try to be myself people don’t seem to like me very much,’ replies Benedict. In case you plan to sit down with The Two Popes over Christmas, know that this benign, uncertain Benedict is just as much nonsense as the idea that he’s a right-wing paedo Nazi. It’s the view of him from a distance.
Here he is close up: ‘Unbelief, too, is a heavy burden and in my opinion even more so than faith is. Faith makes man light. This can be seen in the Church Fathers, especially in monastic theology. To believe means we become like angels, they say. We can fly, because we no longer weigh so heavy in our own estimation.’ Don’t take yourself so seriously. It makes it much easier to change your mind.