Page 6, 30th March 1984

30th March 1984
Page 6
Page 6, 30th March 1984 — Confessions from a liberal conscience

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Locations: Rome, Cambridge, Oxford


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Confessions from a liberal conscience

Norman St John-Stevas has revealed his ideals for Church and State in a new book. Christopher Howse asks him about them.

NORMAN St John-Stevas was at both Oxford (which he calls introvert) and Cambridge (which he calls extrovert). What is he? "Both — I've obviously got an extrovert side, but I reflect. If , you weren't an extrovert, you'd

Ihardly go into politics; but perhaps I'm now entering a more introverted phase." "I feel myself to be between sizes both in religion and politics. I have never been unreservedly committed to a Church or a party and am incapable of using either as a substitute for conscience," he says in his new book The Two Cities*. But is it fair to put the Church on a par with a party? ,

"It is a structure. Just as people whb don't want to make up their own political minds take refuge in a party, so people who don't want to make up their own religious minds can take refuge in a church, and use it as a substitute for thinking or a substitute for living. I think that is very undesirable."

St John-Stevas pioneered measures which resulted in the Obscene Publications Act; supported the reform of the homosexuality laws; opposed Humanae Vitae and said during the Lady Chatterly trial: "Every priest should read this book."

"My liberal record's rather good, don't you think? Abortion and euthanasia, which I have opposed, are different because they involve actual niurder, human rights. On all the other issues I've nobly supported freedom,"

Some Catholics might think that he has undermined some tenets of Catholicism. "But on contraception, we have won, those who opposed the encyclical. It has now been consigned to the private sphere. Nobody argues any , longer. I never argued that contraception is right; I argued that there should be a freedom to decide for the individual.

"With the present Pope there may be a change of emphasis, but I think the Papacy has been demythologised. People don't attach to what Pope John Paul says the importance they attach to what say Pius XII said. That exegesis of every papal word has disappeared. The last attempt to restore the high-water mark was Humanae Vitae and that attempt failed. The Pope is a dominant charismatic figure; I don't think he's a dominant theological figure."

Above his head, Pius IX Looks down sternly, one hand raised in blessing ("Pio Nono just congealed. " he says later on the way downstairs, as we pass his zucchetto in a glass case.) But it is no longer necessary to say every priest should read Lady Chatter/v. "They probably have. They probably have. Poor things, it's a frightfully boring book. The importance of it is that D. H. Lawrence is one of the great litereary geniuses of the century and one must be able to read a person's entire work."

"I have always been for freedom and against repression and against authoritarianism, whether it be in the Church or in the state. The Catholic Church in England is unrecognisable from what it was in my youth. And while it's been loss and gain, it's been more gain than loss."

"The Vatican Council confirmed my views. An article on religious toleration reprinted in my book preceded the Vatican declaration by several years."

As he talks, St John-Stevas flips one buckled shoe over his right leg. His hands move with his words below black and gold cuff-links. He plays with a big gold ring on his little finger.

His fall from political grace came as a crushing blow. "Mrs Thatcher fell out with me; I didn't fall out with her. It is absolutely crucial, like Pius IX, to distinguish between the principle and the personality. That's why it was no difficulty for me to rise and defend her over this persecution over Mark.

"In any case I've always rather liked her. 1 think that one used to have to ration one's jokes fairly carefully — Peter Carrington and I were in that position. I think she has difficulty adapting to that sort of thing — perhaps it's something to do with being a woman.

"Joking about serious matters is very much a sort of male club thing, isn't it? But who was it who set the style of meeting disaster with a joke — Thomas More. Look what happened to him; look what happened to me.

The little ormolu clock, nestling in photographs of Princess Margaret, Prince and Princess Michael. the Queen Mother and Pope John XXIII, tinkles out the quarter.

"Like Cardinal Newman: 'The distant scene I do not pray to see

'One step enough for me.' That's not an entirely accurate quotation, but I think quotations shouldn't be accurate; they should come from a stored mind,"

Well, Cardinal Newman went Over to Rome. Might not St John-Stevas, with his liberal anxieties, go over to a new central party? But he claims his brand of Conservatism is on its way back. Thatcherism is dead; but Mrs Thatcher lives on.

Out of office, the arts remain a great concern. St John-Stevas has always stressed the importance of the arts for those who did not have religion. Was there not a danger that they would simply be a substitute for belief?

"It isn't a question of being a substitute. People are not going to turn to theology in this age. But if they are looking for the spiritual, through the arts, all the better.

Waiting for St John-Stevas, I was parked in the dining-room. It looks like a glossy conversation piece by Augustus Egg or a detail from a Frith. The triple mirror above the chimneypiece reflects four small oils of the coronation of George VI by

Fortunino Maiania. Below them dishes of plump grapes, tangerines and apples lie on an oak sideboard interspersed with bowls of porpourri. Freesias stand in little glass vases on the table and mantelpiece. The carpet is a rich red; the blue walls have seven golden bees instead of flying ducks. Victoria and Albert flank the fire. The Queen's tiny shoe hangs in a glass case at one end, eight stuffed terns at the other. Catholic burglars should note that not only are the contents of the house exquisite, but unsaleable, but also that they are also protected by bars, mantraps, alarms and ferocious dogs.

"I was caused great distress in fighting for the arts, because I cared so passionately for them. And it was successful. Everything was saved,"

"The Two Cities isn't my autobiography. I shall do that a bit later. I've got wonderful things to put into that. Oh! you haven't heard a tenth of what I've got to tell. Yes, mmm . . . After all I've had a very interesting and full life."

*The Two Cities (Faber, £12. 95).

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