Page 10, 29th November 1996

29th November 1996
Page 10
Page 10, 29th November 1996 — Catholicism from within

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Locations: Jerusalem, Rome


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Catholicism from within


IWISH I liked Catholics more," says the Catholic Sebastian Flyte to his unbelieving friend, Charles Ryder, in Brideshead Revisited.

"They seem just like other people," says Charles.

"My dear Charles, that's exactly what they're not... they've got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think is important is different from other people. They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time."

Is there something about being a Catholic that can only be understood by becoming one becoming, that is, Roman Catholic?

I put it like that because it is certainly true that the Catholic Faith can be understood and professed (even including papal complications) without being in communion with the See of Rome. So there is a gulf which is at one level a simple matter of doctrine rather than of affiliation.

Thus, for instance, Brideshead Revisited has an ending which is depressing for non-Catholics, the ideal lovers, Charles and Julia, having been torn apart forever by the Catholic Church's incomprehensible attitude to the remarriage of divorced persons, and the great days of Brideshead having departed forever: the family has gone, and the house hat now been occupied by the military.

But the ending, for a Catholic believer (Roman or not), is transcendently what Waugh intended a happy one. Charles (now a convert) discovers that the chapel, closed years before, has been reopended for Catholic soldiers at the nearby encampment: all the achievements of those who created the great house now brought low pale into insignificance next to one: "something quite remote from anything the builders intended had come out of their work... a small red flame... relit before the beaten copper doors of the tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem... there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stone."

It is one of Waugh's great purple passages: it always brings a little lump to my throat. For non-Catholics, what it represents is incomprehensible, even offensive. The late Kingsley Amis was one of Waught's greatest admirers. He told me once (I had just expressed the opinion that Brideshead was Waugh's masterpiece) that the novel filled him with inarticulate rage.

It is obvious enough that there is a natural gulf of comprehension between those who believe the Catholic faith and those who do not. But even between those within the Church of England who believe most of what Roman Catholics believe and Roman Catholics themselves there remains a real gulf, the reality of which, I suspect, can only be fully known by those who have crossed it.

TAKE, for instance, the matter of what goes on in Church. Anglicans have a feeling for ceremony which is not at all the same thing as the Catholic liturgical sense. Anglican ceremoniousness can be seen at its best in the great state occasions, in which ecclesiastical and military ceremony blend seamlessly, so much so that the

Household Cavalry with their breastplates and the canons of Westminster with their copes and preaching bands seem almost to be part of the same well-drilled ceremonial corps.

This ceremonial punctiliousness is also to be found among Anglo-Catholics, who are for the most part horrified by what they see as the general sloppiness of Roman Catholic liturgical practice.

The trouble is, of course, that they are to some extent right: many parish priests ought to take a peat deal more care than they do over the liturgical decencies. But the fact is that the best performed liturgy does not necessarily imply the deepest faith. Quite simply, a Catholic priest feels in his bones that the liturgy is not something he does but something God does. Whatever he does or fails to do beyond the faithful recital of the Church's liturgy, God comes to his people and is truly sacramentally present on his altars. An AngloCatholic priest has the same faith: but it is at some level of consciousness subverted by the knowledge that the Church of which he is a minister has always denied it. So infinite liturgical pains on his part have to go towards fortifying what his own Church undermines or denies.

IS THAT THE secret of the intangible something that unites Roman Catholics, however much they squabble among themselves? It is not simply that they are united by a faith that denies so much of what the world asserts: it is that this alternative vision seems so utterly natural once one is within the household of faith. It is the sense of being relaxed amid immensities which is so new and so intoxicating for the convert.

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