Page 13, 14th March 1997

14th March 1997
Page 13
Page 13, 14th March 1997 — Snobbery the Catholic way of life

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Organisations: Oxford University
Locations: Dublin, Doncaster, Rome


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Snobbery the Catholic way of life

IT IS CONSIDERED to be one of the quaintest ironies of life that some of the best and most famous English Catholics have been the worst of snobs. One of my old wartime naval chums, a man who would have given his last penny to a beggar, always contended that he did not like going to confession unless the priest was a former public schoolboy.

I hasten to add that he did not believe that he would receive a better class of absolution if his confessor spoke with the accents of Ampleforth or Downside rather than Dublin or Doncaster. He just felt more comfortable, more relaxed. A case, if you will, of like talking to like.

The great Ronald Knox, I have always thought, always teetered on the brink of snobbery. I know for a fact that he publicly criticised a young graduate (now one of our leading poets) for pouring the milk in first when offering him a cup of tea at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Nancy Mitford would have approved of his action, but Catholics can surely be U or non-U and still make it into what will be a classless heaven. Knox, of course, was an old Etonian, but I doubt whether this has any bearing on the great tea ritual.

George Orwell, another Old Etonian and distinguished writer, used to embarrass his colleagues in the BBC canteen by drinking tea from his saucer under the mistaken belief that this was the way of the working class, particularly miners. Orwell, of course, was an inverted snob with knobs on. Show him a table napkin and he would want to use it as a handkerchief. Show him a Catholic and he would see an incipient Fascist.

EVELYN WAUGH, our finest modem novelist, stands pretty high in the snob tables. Whether he was a snob I do not know, but his most Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, certainly tells us much about English snobbery while not detracting one iota from its power and enchantment. I have sometimes wondered, incidentally, what became of Hooper, the subaltern with working-class roots.

Did he by any chance convert to Rome when back in Civvy street and join the crusade against the Latin Mass? In his treatment of Hooper, Waugh shows surprising sympathy although offended by some of his proletarian mannerisms.

Graham Greene, Waugh's only real rival, has never, so far as I can recall, been accused of social snobbery, but then he was something of an inverted theological snob. Greene preferred his heroes to be less grand than Waugh, just as he preferred them to err on the side of sin rather than sainthood. The whisky priest had more appeal for him than the priest who drew his devotion and inspiration from holy water. Malcolm Muggeridge, who knew Graham Greene well once told me that "poor old Graham has become such a prisoner of his own fiction that he cannot sleep with a woman unless she is a Catholic". There had evidently to be a double sense of sin within the blankets.

But we are not concerned here with sin, but with snobbery, and snobbery assuredly is not a sin. Even in the old days when some Catholics saw sin in anything that gave enjoyment, snobbery would hardly have made it into the Venial category. Yet some of our present-day political and religious busybodies regard it as almost one of the sins crying to Heaven for vengeance. It is nothing of the kind. It is just a silly form of vanity that generally does little harm but does at least supply some amusing stories. It was, for instance, said of E.W. Swanton, the famous former Cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and a devout Anglican, that he was the type of man who would not travel in the same car as his chauffeur.

If snobbery were the worst charge that could be brought against the Church in England, Cardinal Hume (the least snobbish of prelates) could sleep serenely in his bed anights. It could, indeed, be argued that a practising Catholic, who is also a snob, must, in effect, be a man (most snobs in my experience are male) of deep faith.

He may consider his parish priest and fellow parishioners his social inferiors but this never stops him from attending Mass, listening to the priest's sermons, taking the sacraments and exchanging the sign of peace with his fellows in the pew. He has, at least for the time-span of the Mass, emptied his heart of silly prejudice. He has been a true Christian, a different man. Can that be said of you and me with our egalitarian views of society?

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