Over the Christmas holidays last year, I gathered them into a manuscript, giving them the title Catholicism Without Apologies, in the hope of getting them published as a book.
I haven't given up on that aspiration, but in the meantime I have decided to serialize the book on this blog-- especially as it has been rather sluggish recently.
I really tried to write some original essays in my Catholic Voice column, feeling that a lot of Catholic journalism and writing (and not only Catholic journalism and writing!) was very samey. This is eventually why I stopped writing it. I felt that, for the time being, I had said everything I had to say in that particular format and I was in danger of repeating myself.
So here is the introduction to Catholicism Without Apologies, to be followed at regular intervals by its other instalments. I hope you like it.
I plan to post a chapter every three or four days or so-- if this is too rapid, please tell me.
Introduction: An Encounter with Bing Crosby (or Frank Sinatra) in Grafton Street
I can remember the exact moment I realised Ireland had ceased to be a Catholic country— and the completely unexpected effect it had on me.
This is how it happened. I was walking through Grafton Street, Dublin’s showpiece shopping street. It was in full Christmas mode. There was some automated seasonal display in the window of Brown Thomas, the fanciest shop in Dublin’s fanciest street. Lights were festooned overhead. It was all very seasonal and enchanting. I forget what I was thinking about. Probably nothing in particular.
Then, drifting from the speakers of a newsagents, I heard Bing Crosby (or perhaps it was Frank Sinatra) singing the refrain of ‘The First Noel’.
Like everybody else, I had heard this song dozens or hundreds of times before. But this time it had—completely unpredictably— a devastating effect on me. This time, for some reason, hearing the words born is the king of Israel made me realise—for the first time ever—that Ireland had been a Catholic country up until my own childhood years, and that it had more recently ceased to be so.
To repeat, I was not at this time a believing Catholic. I did not go to Mass, or pray. I wasn’t sure I even believed in God. It would be many years to come before any of this changed. So there was no particular reason for me to feel devastated at the realisation that Ireland had ceased to be Catholic.
But, in that single moment—less than a moment—I was crushed by the sense that something unutterably precious had been lost. It was a very strange, almost unearthly experience—rather like walking through the ruin of an old house and suddenly, for a split second, having a vision of that place full of life and laughter—and then for it all to disappear into air again, making the ruin seem a thousand times more forlorn than it had been the instant before.
The crooner’s voice (whoever he was) was a part of it. It was a smooth, gentle, dreamy voice, one that seemed to convey a whole world of innocence and chivalry and reverence—qualities that, I knew, were no longer typical of my country, and that I had witnessed (almost without noticing) ebbing away from Ireland’s national culture in my own lifetime. As I had grown from childhood to early manhood, Ireland became a crasser, cruder, spiritually impoverished place. To tell the difference, all it took was to watch an Irish television show from thirty of forty years before. (The fact that it was an American recording that prompted this reaction is irrelevant. It still took me back to my own country’s recent past, and it seemed typical of it. It might make a better story if it was John McCormack’s voice I’d heard, but it wasn’t.)
This might be dismissed as simple nostalgia. But it was more. In this same moment, I knew one thing for sure; that this same gentleness and innocence, whose loss I felt with such sudden pain, had everything to do with the ‘king of Israel’ that Bing Crosby (or Frank Sinatra) was singing about.
I’m very well aware of the derision with which such a claim would be met amongst most of Ireland’s cultural commentators today. This gentleness and innocence, they would scoff, was all on the surface; underneath, we would find innumerable couples trapped in loveless marriages, mothers exhausted by an endless round of childbearing, Christian Brothers abusing children, homosexuals leading lives of shame and concealment, cultural stagnation, and so forth.
I believe such claims are massively overstated; but, even if they are true, the point is that Catholic Ireland cherished ideals that seemed to have been entirely discarded in post-Catholic Ireland. And the change was reflected in the art, entertainment and general culture of the two different periods.
The change can be illustrated by one example. When I was growing up (and indeed, until quite recently) there was a short television programme on RTE, Ireland’s state-funded television station, called A Prayer at Bedtime, in which a rather bland Christian reflection would be delivered. (I have only the vaguest memory of it myself.) In more recent times, the title of this programme was lampooned by A Scare at Bedtime, a show in which two foul-mouthed puppets told stories full of crudity and sexual innuendo. ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ It seemed to me that the society which produced A Prayer was Bedtime was obviously preferable to the society which produced A Scare at Bedtime, however short of its ideals that society might have fallen.
As I mentioned, this sudden insight did not make me flee into the nearest church (which would have been the Carmelite Church on Clarendon Street, a few steps—and a whole world—away.) In fact, this moment passed with no apparent legacy. My journey to Catholic belief would come years later, and would be much more roundabout and difficult. I describe it in the first chapter of this book.
But almost as soon as I did start practicing my faith, I rushed to defend it with my pen—on my blog (Irish Papist), in letters to secular newspapers, and in various Catholic publications. There were so many voices raised on the opposite side that I felt it was my duty. (Also, I’m that kind of fellow.)
This book is mostly composed of articles I wrote for The Catholic Voice, a fortnightly newspaper which is published in Ireland, and sold here and in the UK. Beginning in 2013, I started contributing a column called The View from the Pew. (A very unoriginal title, as I realised after I had chosen it.)
My writings in defence of the Catholic faith, there and elsewhere, had two main principles behind them. The first was that I wanted to write on as broad a range of subjects as possible; I wanted to be catholic (which means ‘universal’) as well as Catholic. I believed that the Catholic worldview was broader, deeper, and richer than any competing worldview. I didn’t just want to write about ‘spiritual’ topics from a Catholic perspective. I wanted to write about everything that mattered to me from a Catholic perspective.
The other principle was that I wanted to utterly avoid the wheedling, apologetic, rather creepy tone which is all-too-common amongst public defenders of Catholicism in today’s Ireland. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland, as well as many ordinary Catholics, had very properly apologised for the clerical sex abuse scandals that had come to light from the nineties onwards. Unfortunately, too many Catholics have taken to apologising, not only for abuses committed by some Catholic priests, but for the Catholic faith itself—its dogmas, traditions, beliefs and history.
Who would want anything to do with a philosophy of life whose own adherents don’t even seem to believe in it?
It’s time for Irish Catholics to stop apologising. It’s time for them to start shouting from the rooftops that the Catholic faith is the most beautiful and important thing in the world, with an illustrious history in Ireland and elsewhere. Does this mean we have to become triumphalist tub-thumpers? Of course not. Does it mean that we cease to be thoughtful, nuanced, and sensitive to other points of view? Absolutely not.
But it does mean that we have to start proclaiming the Catholic faith, and not simply defending it—or excusing it. It does mean we have to stop pleading to be tolerated, and start telling our contemporaries why the Catholic faith is beautiful, good and (most importantly) true. And by this I don’t just mean some idealised Catholic faith which has never been practiced in the real world, except (perhaps) by St. Francis of Assisi and a few others. I mean the real, ordinary Catholic faith as practiced by real, ordinary Catholics.
The great Hilaire Belloc put it like this: “One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently hated or loved. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the night.”
This I believe. And this book is my personal attempt to make that case as forcefully—and as entertainingly!—as I possibly can. It is a document of an ordinary Catholic layman’s engagement with modern Ireland and the modern world. My hope is that it may reinforce the faith of some of my co-religionists, and supply them with some arguments and perspectives that may not have occurred to them. If it finds its way into the hands of an agnosic or unbeliever, my hope is that it may make them question the notion that the Catholic faith is something stuffy, restrictive or ill-equipped to deal with the facts of twenty-first century life. The whole theme of this book might even be stated thus: that when you look out at our modern world, whether through the television screen or your own living room window, the drama you witness is best explained and understood in the light of the Catholic faith. Intrigued? Well, read on….