Monday, July 4, 2016

Dear Ms. Mantel: But of Course the Church Isn’t Respectable!

A rather nice piece by George Weigel (HT/the husband) has reminded me why, despite my interest in all things Tudor English, we stopped watching Wolfe Hall after one episode (even though it’s free with Amazon Prime): my, that historical flimmery-flummery!  (Though to be fair, half of our reason for quitting was that it was terribly depressing.  Somehow even The Man in the High Castle, despite its rather more dystopian setting, managed to be less so.)

Weigel’s piece also sent me off to reading his links, including the rather sad one where Wolfe Hall’s author, Hilary Mantel, declares that “nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”  (She also calls herself “one of nature’s Protestants,” whatever that may mean.)  Mantel’s more specific criticisms of the Church are more on point, and certainly merit reply—which I will eschew, since they have been amply addressed elsewhere.  (For starters, on the clerical scandals, see Fr. Z and Bishop Barron.)  But the respectability point made me laugh because, however archetypically British such a lament may be, most Catholics (British and otherwise) are well aware that from the days of the Roman Empire on up into the present Catholics have never been respectable.  It is not one of our aspirations.

Chesterton, to be sure, asserted that Catholicism “is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man” (“Why I Am a Catholic”); but as that “even” suggests, respectable was hardly one of Chesterton’s favored terms—he tends to use it with a note of irony, e.g.: “How quickly revolutions grow old; and, worse still, respectable” (The Listener, 3-6-35); “Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem” (Orthodoxy, 7).

And of course, there is this:

… the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.  (Orthodoxy, 6, chapter conclusion.)

Even that would-be paragon of English country-gentlemanliness, Evelyn Waugh, knew better than to say that the church of his choice was respectable.

“… I wish I liked Catholics more.”
“They seem just like other people.”
“My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they are notparticularly in this country, where theyre so few.  It’s not just that they’re a clique—as a matter of fact, they’re at least four cliques all blackguarding each other half the time—but they’re got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.  They try and hide it as much as they can, but it comes out all the time. …”  (Brideshead Revisited, ch. 4)

And then, of course, there is the famous line of Joyce’s from Finnegan’s Wake, “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’”

I could go on—Flannery O’Connor would no doubt have things to say on this subject, and even C.S. Lewis, Anglican though he was, could provide extensive remarks about the advisability (or otherwise) of worrying about the respectability of one’s religion—but you catch my drift.  No, I’m afraid Catholics and the Catholic Church are not respectable, and we never shall be.  It’s not that we’re exactly proud of this fact (well, perhaps some of us—nature’s hippies, to borrow a turn from Mantel—are proud of our unrespectability)—it’s just that there are other things are of deeper concern to most of us: truth in the first place, and ultimately happiness.

Chocolate, you know, has only recently become respectable (and who knows how long it will preserve its position in this regard), but it has always made people happy.  I leave it to the reader to determine whether its respectability or its deliciousness is the more salient concern.

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