Magazine article The Spectator

Ungumming the 'Papist' Label

Magazine article The Spectator

Ungumming the 'Papist' Label

Article excerpt

Ungumming the 'papist' label THE CATHOLIC REVIVAL IN ENGLISH LITERATURE, 1845-1961 by Ian Ker Gracewing, 2 Southern Avenue, Leominster, Herefordshire HR 6 0QF, Tel: 01568 616835, £14.99, pp. 231, ISBN 085244625X

This book is so important and good it deserves a more crowd-pulling title. Besides, is 'Revival' the right word? True, after a silence of 300 years some authors began to write from the Catholic point of view, but this has gathered no popular momentum. Also the word 'Catholic' in a title is likely to put people off. Speaking as a Catholic myself (an interest to be declared at once), I know well the kinds of expression a reluctant confession of my allegiance provokes: incredulity, or suspicion or, worse, a sort of loopy awe, as though a Catholic must be privy to other crackpot mysteries, such as the magical properties of crystals (or crystal balls).

The purpose of this book is to unpick the work of post-Reformation spindoctors and to try and explain the way Catholics actually think. Here are careful and intelligent analyses of six very different writers - John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh - and what is remarkable is how similar is their thinking (and feeling). Belloc mused sadly in his The Path to Rome on how isolated his Catholicism made him among his intellectual peers, and Newman thought that English literature would always be irredeemably Protestant. A huge anti-Catholic prejudice had been built up, more political than spiritual perhaps, because Catholicism was supranational, had become 'foreign'.

The young Newman was an example of the historically induced horror with which Catholicism came to be regarded; he felt it himself as a young Anglican priest. 'I have no existing sympathies with Roman Catholics. I hardly ever, even abroad, was at one of their services - I know nothing of them. I do not like what I hear of them.' And, 'I neither understood, nor tried to understand, the Mass service.' Then as he moved about the Mediterranean on his travels, meeting Catholics at last, he found 'so much amiableness and gentleness' and - a touching example of the provincialism into which England had fallen, his highest compliment - 'so much Oxonianism'.

All except Belloc of these six writers were converts and, in the case of Hopkins, Ker argues that conversion dictated the way he wrote. …

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