My religious upbringing was casually Protestant, a respect for Christian tradition and high religious tolerance, but no encouragement to be a practising or seriously believing Christian.
Something like this was the condition of most of my relatives and school and social contemporaries in Toronto and elsewhere in English-speaking Canada. My family was divided between atheism and agnosticism, and I followed rather unthinkingly and inactively in those paths into my 20s. When I moved to Quebec in 1966 I was astounded by the omnipresence there of Roman Catholicism. I studied the law, language, and history of Quebec, and eventually produced a lengthy biography of Maurice L Duplessis, Quebec’s longest-serving and most controversial leader, and became an official of the charity of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger (he was the Archbishop of Montreal from 1950 to 1967). This organisation, Le Cardinal Leger et Ses Oeuvres, built a modern hospital in Cameroon, where the cardinal had moved in 1967. In my Duplessis research, I steeped myself in the relations of Church and state in traditional Quebec, and interviewed many prominent clergymen apart from Léger. I had had the usual English-Canadian view that the Church had allied itself with reactionary political elements to slow the progress of Quebec and keep it in superstitious retardation.
There certainly had been reactionary, and even racist and quasi-fascist elements in the Quebec clergy, but they never predominated.
My research revealed that only the Church had sustained the French language in Quebec, the demographic survival of French Canadians, and the prevalence of literacy, provision of health care, and even most capital formation (as in the caisses populaires and credit unions attached to almost every parish), for nearly two centuries after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. I met the founder of the cooperation movement, the Dominican Georges-Henri Lévesque, and other prominent figures in social organisations, including the Jesuit Emile Bouvier of the Institute of Industrial Relations. (Duplessis had told my eventual friend Malcolm Muggeridge that the secret to governing Quebec was to keep the Dominicans and Jesuits quarrelling with each other.) In general, the clerical personnel were at least as impressive as their secular analogues. I was impressed by the worldliness of such a spiritual organiation. Cardinal Léger was always mindful of the importance of money, but was no less a man of dedicated spirituality for that. It was a cultural eye-opener for me to see how official Catholicism tried to quantify or at least aggregate factors that I had not thought susceptible to such precise calibration. Official summaries of the lives of saints customarily ended: “Thus glorified by evident signs and miracles, he/she is numbered among the Church’s saints,” as if having filled out a behavioural scorecard. Far from being an empire of hocus pocus and mesmerisation of the primitive, of exploitation, hypocrisy, reaction, and ever proliferating poverty, I saw the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec, and later in most other places, as fiercely dedicated to the kingdom of God, resistant to oppor tunistic fads, concerned to modernise without eroding faith, armed with intellectual arguments quite equal, at the least, to those of their secular opponents or rivals, and almost always a champion of human rights when it wasn’t in common cause with less altruistic elements against the anti-Christ of Communism.
Of course, Quebec had been a priest-ridden society, with a great deal of meddlesome, priggish excess, but with all the secularisation that has occurred in Quebec, relatively few problems of deviant behaviour have been unearthed or even alleged. Duplessis had told Léger (the cardinal said to me one evening at his mission near Yaounde): “If you squeeze a fish hard enough, it will get away.” Léger said that he had replied that he was well aware of that but that it was Duplessis who was exploiting the paranoia of the rural bishops by fanning their fears that any move to secularisation would bring down satanism and assimilation on French Canada.
This discussion took place on the verandah of his pre-First World War German mission where he lived, near the clinic that cared for destitute lepers and other wretchedly disadvantaged people. The numbers and courage of Catholic missions and clinics assisting the most distressed people in the world is an under-recognised, large-scale devolution of faithful people to the most challenging causes. Dozens of them are murdered every year and for all of them, their work is its reward. For every Mother Teresa there are dozens of other, similarly inspired, selfless, and effective people. It is hard not to be affected and uplifted by their devotion. The almost exclusive Church provision of education and health care to French Quebec was overly prolonged and averse to competition, but the resulting savings in salary costs of teachers and nurses enabled the government of Quebec to devote most of its budget to what is now called infrastructure. Duplessis built thouands of schools, the new campuses of Laval and Montreal Universities, the University of Sherbrooke, hundreds of hospitals and clinics, thousands of miles of roads, the first Canadian autoroutes, and he brought electricity to 97 per cent of rural Quebec. Quebec was even a pioneer in disability pensions and day care.
The period from 1944 to Duplessis’s death in 1959 was the only time when Quebec’s economic growth exceeded English Canada’s. Public works and social programmes in Quebec in the Fifties may not seem to have much to do with the merits of Catholicism (despite Duplessis’s hilarious campaign against the Liberal federal government’s importation of “Communist eggs” from Poland in 1956), but both the episcopate and the lower clergy were essential associates in these years of swift social and economic progress.
When I was familiarising myself with all this, Léger had gone to Africa, Duplessis’s Union Nationale was extinct, Quebec had become wildly secular, and M Laliberte, the head of the Quebec teachers’ union, opened his 1975 annual convention with a panegyric of joy at the “liberation” of South Vietnam. French Canada had secularised itself, as English Canada had urged and wanted (though that is not why it did it). Now the same people were performing the same educational and paramedical tasks in the same buildings for the same population at 10 times the cost to the Quebec taxpayers, and were frequently on strike, as taxes and debt soared, the birthrate collapsed, the separatists advanced, and the cultural rights of the non-French were redefined as “revocable privileges”. The fish, indeed, had got away.
The Church was in steep decline in Quebec, but this was no less interesting a perspective for appreciating its strengths. As when it was at its height, the quality of its subsequent leaders, Cardinals Ouellet and Turcotte, is rather more evident than the merit of corresponding secular leaders, although their dominion has shrunk and the province of the state has grown, comparative to the times of Léger and Duplessis, or the prior epoch when the Taschereau family produced the cardinal, the premier, and the chief justices. Now the impecunious parishes, scanty congregations and the apparent anachronism of the contemporary Church seemed to produce a sharp division between those clergy buoyed by the challenge, feeling themselves like the monks of the Dark Ages squatting in forests and on mountain tops, agents of spiritual and cultural preservation, and those who were just the detritus of the old Church, parched, wizened, and passing slowly on. In Quebec as in France, those who persist in the practice of the faith are not the oldest, poorest, most desperate, though those are there, but a very random group, including elegant young women, evidently successful men, bright students, unselfconscious, curious, and assured. The spiritual edifice of the Church functions obliviously to market share, and there is a common strain of intelligent and hopeful faith, regardless of fashion, age, or economics. Whether in packed and mighty cathedrals, like St Peter’s or St Patrick’s (New York), a simple wooden building like the Indian church in Sept-Îles, Quebec, in primitive religious structures in Cameroon, at fashionable resorts like Biarritz, St-JeanCap-Ferrat, Portofino, or even Palm Beach (“The Lord is my shepherd, even in Palm Beach,” as a guest homilist proclaimed some years ago), or in the improvised chapel in my prison as I write, there is a discernible, but almost inexpressible denominator that unites communicants. I am still impressed by the purposeful spring in the step of people approaching a Catholic Church as the hour of a service peals.
It may be that I was startled to discover this because I was so accustomed from my early years to think of Protestantism, except for the evangelicals, as conditional and tentative, protesting, after all, against the worldliness of Rome. When I first went to Rome, in 1963, I had just read a description of John Updike’s, in the New Yorker, of his first visit to St Peter’s, in which he was astounded by the grandeur of the basilica, by its size, solidity, magnificence, architectural genius and collections of high art, that he felt compelled to add his name to thousands of others written in the graffiti in the wall of the curved stairway to the cupola, 44 stories above the ground (in a building constructed continuously between the 15th and 18th centuries). I dimly and roughly remembered Byron’s words: “Worthiest of God, the holy and the true... Majesty, power, glory, strength and beauty, all are aisled in this eternal ark of worship undefiled.” It was hard not to see what he meant. The sense of indulgent receptivity of this incomparable building was somehow emphasised by its ostentatious affordability of indifference to those who would come as sceptics or antagonists. Unlike the pyramids, the Great Wall, Angkor Wat, or even the Kremlin, there is nothing Ozymandian about it. Unlike the Pentagon, it is completely human, while inciting divine contemplation. My visits to Lourdes and Fatima in the ensuing couple of years revealed concepts of mass faith in the miraculous, scientifically attested to, that were also amazing to a former spiritually slumbering Protestant, and difficult to ignore or discount.
These are just fragments of background to set the perspective from which I approached Catholicism. By the time I left Quebec in 1974 and returned to Toronto, I was satisfied that there were spiritual forces in the world, and that it was possible, occasionally and unpredictably, to gain something enlightening and even inspiriting from them. I had begun to pray at the end of each day, developing my own groping formulations of worship, and feeling no compulsion to join formal religious practice, but curious about where this might lead. I had stepped on to the escalator, and knew from reading of famous converts, especially Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Manning, G K Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Malcolm Muggeridge, Frank and Elizabeth Longford, Orestes Brownson and some less famous people, including contributors to this book, that it was likely to end in Rome. Wherever it might lead, I was determined not to move a millimetre until I was convinced that it was justified by belief. There would be no surrender to momentum or the fatigue of argument. But I had discovered by my early 30s that I no longer had any confidence in the non-existence of God. It was more of an intellectual and a psychological strain not to believe in God than to believe, and not from the impulse of hopefulness; from the impossibility of shutting out spirituality, abandoning curiosity about getting to grips with the infinite, before the beginning and after the end of time, and beyond the outer limits of space. Logically, there is some sort of organising principle abroad, or at least something unexplained, partially defining, and at least slightly accessible. Whether it was Bismarck speaking of “listening for God’s footfall and touching the hem of His garment as He passes”, or Britain’s late Cardinal Hume saying it was “like a screen. You can detect something behind it but can’t make out clearly what it is,” simply dismissing religious belief is not like dismissing astrology or chiropracting, or eschewing mushrooms. This is the only possible route to some insights beyond the normally discernible. Declining any interest in it, I gradually discovered, was an unjustifiable reduction of my modest intellectual canvas. I read a good deal of the most admired arguments in support of God’s existence, especially Aquinas and Newman, and many of the more familiar or florid against, such as Robert Ingersoll and Marx. My favourite of this latter group was a humorously vituperative Welshman named Powys, who claimed to have “heard the Hazzan chanted from the minarets in the blazing midday sun, and seen the African in his rainforest, the men of China, raising sinew-lean arms to the heavens... It has never availed.” On the other side, I could never say, and cannot now, as Newman did, that: “I am as sure of the existence of God as I am of my own hands and feet.” Newman’s most picaresque argument, valuable for its almost impish wit, was the quotation of Napoleon, near the end at St Helena, from the not entirely reliable Lacordaire, at the end of Newman's tour de force, A Grammar of Assent. Napoleon was introduced as “the great man who so influenced the destinies of the nations of Europe at the start of this century”. Lacordaire wrote that Napoleon had mused: someone who “died a miscreant’s death 1,800 years ago, whose likeness is displayed in the principal squares of great cities, at rural crossways, in palaces and in hovels, before the newborn and the failing vision of those about to die; effortlessly achieved what Alexander and Caesar and I did not begin to accomplish. Can he be less than divine, one to whom our eyes turn, as to a father and a God?” Of course, the answer to Napoleon’s question is yes, he might not be divine on that evidence alone, but the alleged fact that he posed it at all is of interest. Napoleon was not an atheist, any more than Alexander or Caesar were; rather they saw themselves as God’s lieutenants, or even duumvirs. Caesar had himself proclaimed a deity, so he could scarcely claim there were none already. Napoleon, nephew of Cardinal Fesch, said: “Of course the people must have their religion, and of course the state must control it.” Even Hitler and Stalin were not atheists. Hitler was a pagan who detested Christianity. Indeed, what he considered the Jews’ botch of the disposition of Christ, the ignorance of the Sanhedrin and the mindless barbarity of the Jewish mobs, chanting “Crucify him!” and “Give us Barabbas”, to which he imputed the rise of Christianity, is one of the few slightly plausible explanations of his otherwise inexplicable anti-Semitism. This was his perverse version of the legend of the Christ-killers, mutated from the traditional grievance into the bungled elimination of a subversive troublemaker. Hitler seems to have believed in some quasi-Wagnerian notion of a God of war, more formidable than the vacillating, hag-ridden, and generally ungodlike Wotan of The Ring of the Nibelung, of which Hitler was such a devotee. Even Stalin, expelled from the seminary as he had been, and leader of the world’s atheistic Marxists, believed in God, though he thought him an opponent, and thought himself a sort of leader of the opposition. He said to the film director, Sergei Eisenstein, of his film Ivan the Terrible: “God hindered the Czar Ivan in his work.” Stalin was creating a “new man” through social engineering, a man superior to the one inherited from God, and perfectible, in the pursuit of which objective Stalin blithely murdered tens of millions of them. I had no difficulty discarding the scientific claims of people like Bertrand Russell, that there was a finite amount of knowledge in the universe, and that every day we more closely approached a plenitude of knowledge. It seemed to me that the greatest discoveries, remarkable as they were, did just the opposite. The revolution of the earth around the sun, like the process of evolution, diminished us, as less prominent in the universe and descended from a lower order of animals. The fact that we can’t control our subconscious does not make us more redoubtable, but more vulnerable. And atomic energy enhances the prospects for human selfdestruction, at least as much as positive applications of it.
The exaggerated claims of the scientists were not much more persuasive than the similarly overblown liberties of the miraculists and creationists. At some point, science and revelation intersect, and faith is no natural enemy of scholarship. I read many of the more accessible Catholic writers, especially Newman, Aquinas, St Augustine, and Maritain. And when Gerald Emmett Carter became the Archbishop of Toronto in 1979, I quickly became an acquaintance, then a friend, and eventually an intimate. He never pressed his religious views or attempted to proselytise, any more than Cardinal Léger had. He, too, became a cardinal, in 1980. I frequently stopped at his house, in Rosedale, on my way uptown from my office, and we discussed a good many subjects, sometimes ecclesiastical ones, usually over some of his very good claret. These were tumultuous years in my commercial and, at times, personal life also. His counsel was only given when requested and was always wise. (When he retired as archbishop he became a director of one of our companies, Argus Corporation, and even in this field and at his age, his opinions were useful.) Despite the gap in our ages of more than 30 years, no one ever had a truer or more valued friend than he was to me.
From the early Seventies to the mid-Eighties, I approached Rome at a snail’s pace. Having concluded that God existed, I could not seriously entertain the thought of not trying to be in contact with Him. And since I believed in general and prayed to and worshipped Him, it was not long before I wished to do so in some framework, to benefit from accumulated wisdom and traditions and from a community of faith. It was not especially challenging, given my light Protestant upbringing, to stay in the Christian tradition. From all accounts, Christ appeared to be a divinely inspired person, in traditional parlance, a divine. There was no reason to doubt that he told St Peter to found a church. I had never much doubted that, whatever its “inanities, fatuities, and compromises” (a quote from Léger), the Catholic Church was the premier Christian church. I read a good deal of Christian history and while the financial corruption of the medieval Church was frequently outrageous, and the papacy was at times batted about like a badminton bird by the great Roman families, the Church seems to have performed its pastoral functions well enough, or it would not have survived at all. Its intellectual life was vigorous and was not seriously challenged by the Reformationists. It had performed its role as a conservator of western culture and civilisation; a large part of the extravagance objected to was devoted to the promotion of the arts and the flowering of the Renaissance, especially the 220-year construction of St Peter’s. The congregational churches that sprang up in the Reformation always seemed to me the ecclesiastical equivalent of people approving their own expense accounts, as the clergy could be revoked by their ostensible followers. Whatever the benevolence of the Protestant churches and the frailties of Rome, the fragmentation of Christianity among self-directed national sects never seemed to me consistent with Christ’s instruction to St Peter to found and lead a universal Church.
As a nominal Anglican, I had always had some problems with Henry VIII as a religious leader. That he apostacised to facilitate marriage with a woman whom he soon beheaded on false charges of adultery, seized the monasteries to finance his wars in France, and required his puppet parliament to give him back the title “Defender of the Faith”, (still on the Canadian coinage in honour of the present Queen), that the pope had given him in recognition of a canonical paper Erasmus had ghostwritten for him, never filled me with confidence in the legitimacy of the Church of England. More and Wolsey were more morally compelling figures than the Henricians, and many of Britain’s great pre-Wren Anglican churches were seized from Rome. Nor was I convinced that the replacement of the Stuarts with the House of Orange was the “Glorious Revolution” that MacAulay and the Trevelyans and other talented Whig myth-makers have claimed. James II was a blundering monarch, but his Toleration Act, promising religious freedom for Jews, Roman Catholics, disestablished Protestants and non-believers, was not subversive or ignoble, and was a shabby pretext for a revolution. The Anglicans, as Newman had written, had an impressive lower clergy, but it seemed more (to me) a measure of wellplaced cultural and ethnic faith in the British and American upper classes and institutions, and a contingent, sectarian insurance policy, than the earthly portal to the kingdom of God. The Anglicans have never really decided whether they are Protestant or Catholic, only that they “don’t Pope”, though even that wavers from time to time. Luther, though formidable and righteous, was less appealing to me than both the worldly Romans, tinged with rascality though they were, and the leading papist zealots of the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits and Capuchins had to be more thoughtful and less Teutonically joyless than Luther, a Bismarckian iron chancellor unleavened by a cynical wit. The serious followers of Calvin, Dr Knox and Wesley were, to me, too puritanical, but also too barricaded into ethnic and cultural fastnesses, too much the antithesis of universalism and of the often flawed, yet grand, Roman effort to reconcile the spiritual and the material without corrupting the first and squandering the second. There was something warmly reassuring, as well as amusingly knowledgeable, about Duplessis’s explanation to Léger, (told to me by both the cardinal and Duplessis’s very longserving assistant, Aurea Cloutier), that: “We are like the Brueghel triptych in the Louvre, where you and I sit in the centre panel surrounded by pomp and ceremony, conducting our offices, while sexual orgies and drunken debauchery flourish in one side-panel, and people are picking pockets and taking bribes in the other. We maintain appearances, but we know how the world functions. You encourage the people to behave better, and I have to prosecute them when they commit outrages, but we are dealing with people in a world we know too well.” Léger did not strenuously demur. It isn’t reformist zeal, but it is grounded in experience, is meliorist, and has attainable objectives. And it was Catholicism in Quebec, an endearing blend of idealism and cynicism. Fanatics are very tiresome, and usually enjoy the fate of Haman in the book of Esther; of Savonarola, Robespierre, Trotsky, Goebbels, and Guevara. Islam was out of the question; too anti-western, too identified with the 13thcentury decline and contemporary belligerency of the Arabs; and the Koran is alarmingly violent, even compared to the Old Testament. Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual. And it was the spiritual bait that I sought, that converted me from atheism, that I premeditatedly swallowed, and that prompted me to agitate the line and be reeled in by the Fisher of Souls. I thought it more likely that the 80 per cent of the early Jews who became Christians, starting with Christ, had correctly identified the Messiah than that the proverbially “stiffnecked” rump of continuing Jewry are right still, ostensibly, to be waiting for Him. It need hardly be said that the Jews are the chosen people of the Old Testament, that they have made a huge contribution to civilisation, and that they have been horribly persecuted. But being Jewish today, apart from the orthodox, is more of an exclusive society, and a tradition of oppression and survival, than an accessible faith. The eastern religions, to the very slight degree that I have studied them, are philosophical guides to living, not frameworks for the existence and purpose of man. In terms of real religious affiliation for me, it was Rome or nothing.
To exercise and explore my faith, I would have to chin myself on Catholic dogma, at least up to a threshold I had not approached before. I was satisfied, from my reading, and from my visits to Lourdes and Fatima, that miracles do sometimes occur. Therefore, logically, any miracle could occur, even the most apparently challenging, such as the Virgin Birth and the physical Ascension of Christ. In the spring of 1986, Cardinal Carter asked me my religious beliefs. I recited my plodding baby steps on the ladder: there were spiritual aspects to life that were not mere superstition, and that constituted or at least evidenced God; that Christ was divinely inspired, had told St Peter to found a Church, and that the legitimate continuator of that Church was Roman Catholicism. I desired to be in communion with God, and accepted that the surest means of doing so, though not sure, and not the only one, was as a communicant in the Roman Catholic Church. I believed that miracles occurred, though I couldn’t attest to particular ones, that given the wonders of creation and of the infinite, and the imperfections of man, we all properly belonged, frequently, on our knees before an effigy of the Creator or his professed and acclaimed son, and that sincere and concentrated worship could be enlightening. I also, like Chesterton and countless millions of others, wished some method of being “rid of my sins”, as I agree with Newman that “our conscience is God speaking within us”. The cardinal replied that I was “at the door”, but that the one point I had to embrace if I wished to enter, and without which, all Christianity, he boldly asserted, “is a fraud and a trumpery”, was the Resurrection of Christ. If I believed that, I was eligible; if I did not, I wasn’t. What he was asking was not unreasonable, and I reflected on it for a few minutes and concluded that since, as defined, I believed in God and in miracles, I could at least suppress doubt sufficiently to meet his criterion. I considered it a little longer to be sure that I wasn’t allowing momen tum, contemplative fatigue, or my great regard for him to push me over the finish line. After a silence of perhaps five minutes, I said that I thought I could clear that hurdle. He asked me if I wished to be received. I did, and was, in the chapel in his home a few days later, on June 18 1986. I thought of Pascal’s attribution to Christ: “You would not have sought me if you had not already found me”; and of the statement by, I think, one of the saints, that “All the way to God is God, because Christ said: ‘I am the way.’ ” I have taken the sacraments at least once a week since, and have confessed when I feel sinful. This is not an overly frequent sensation, but when it occurs, I can again agree with Newman that our consciences are “powerful, peremptory, unargumentative, irrational, minatory and definitive”. The strain of trying to ignore or restrain an aroused conscience can be intolerable. Confession and repentance, if sincere, are easier, more successful, and more creditable. Though there are many moments of scepticism as matters arise, and the dark nights of the soul that seem to assail almost everyone visit me too, I have never had anything remotely resembling a lapse, nor a sense of forsakenness, even when I was unjustly indicted, convicted, and imprisoned, in a country I formerly much admired.
The Catholic life in the prison where I write is active and intellectually stimulating. Confidence that there is at least some sort of an organising principle in the world, the experience that worship sometimes produces – which can enhance an understanding of travails and observations – and some metaphysical background, do provide a hinterland for perceptions, and with it, relative serenity and proportionality, even, and perhaps especially, in times of extreme tension, poignancy, and adversity. And there have been some.
My lifelong tolerance of all creeds, including impassioned atheism, has not abated. I feel no more desire than I ever did to judge, asperse, or scold. In religion as in some other matters, I will not presume to advise, but am, up to a point, prepared to say what I am doing and why, if anyone is curious. In the matters described here, I have had no regrets nor any unanswerable second thoughts.
Lord Black of Crossharbour is a major shareholder in The Catholic Herald. This article is an extract from Canadian Converts, a collection of 11 conversion stories by prominent Canadian Catholics. It will be published by Justin Press