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Piers Paul Read on the future of the Church
Piers Paul Read is one of Britain's foremost writers, being the author of 13 novels and two works of non-fiction, including the best-seller 'Alive', later made into a successful movie. During October, the Campion Fellowship sponsored Mr Read's lectures in several Australian capital cities. While in Melbourne, he spoke at the Thomas More Centre and was interviewed for 'AD2000' by Stuart Rowland.
Would you comment on the decline of religious faith in Europe?
To judge from my children and some of their friends, the problem today is not atheism but people not being interested in religious questions at all, a lack of curiosity about whether there is any religious truth. This is partly because of a kind of consensus of humane values which seem to them an entirely sufficient moral system, without the need to bring God into the equation.
I do not see much distinction between the present generation in Britain and the present generation in Northern Europe. This indifference to religion is not total, for you do see young people in churches, but it is the minutest proportion of the population. The actual number of people going to church has declined dramatically in the last ten years. A lot of those who do go in London are from overseas, Filipinos, or whatever.
I think that the problem - again to judge from my children and their contemporaries - is not atheism or communism, which were the other great things in my youth, but a kind of neo-pelagianism. They do not believe in original sin. They do not understand what all this grovelling before God is all about. What are these great sins for which we have to be forgiven? They see themselves as reasonably good in their hedonistic lives, and do not understand what this Augustinian angst is all about.
What do you think has caused this collapse of religious belief?
The short answer is the contraceptive pill. Obviously sexual morality and religious belief are not identical. But up until the sixties, society had a belief in what I would call conjugal morality: making sure that people got married and had a father and mother. With the pill, that collapsed, because then people could have sex without having children.
But it was happening long before the sixties, when the sanctions of heaven and hell, which sustained religious belief in the Middle Ages, were disintegrating under the assault of popularised Darwinism and popularised Freudianism.
You can also point to a lot of political, economic and social causes. Feminism, women usurping the roles of men, the family becoming a matter of choice, rather than a form of community imposed by social reality. I think that all of these things have contributed to the present crisis of belief.
Does the Church have any responsibility for the crisis?
I believe that the Church lost the plot. Even Catholics do not like it when I go on about supernatural sanctions. If you study the earlier theologians, highly intelligent people like St Thomas More, St John Fisher, and St Francis de Sales, they really worried about people losing their souls. They believed that if you were not baptised, that if you did not believe in Christ, you would not be saved, and after your death there would be what we call damnation.
The Mass even now says "Save us Lord from damnation" but, even in the most traditional churches, you very rarely hear a sermon about damnation. One wonders whether even the most orthodox priests still believe in the likelihood of going to Hell. If you read the Gospels, however, that is what Jesus said. The gate is narrow which leads to salvation. Today, it is the wide gate which leads to salvation and a very narrow gate which leads to damnation - if there is a gate at all.
Do you see a parallel between the society's decline in belief and the so-called "post-Conciliar Church"?
My own theory on this is that the Church was traumatised by the events of World War II in a way that only slowly emerged. Think of the general and specific nature of European society in 1914 and how, in the next two or three decades, absolutely atrocious things occurred: the slaughter in the trenches, the gulags, the Bolshevik uprising, the murder of Christians, priests, and nuns in Spain, Mexico and Russia, the concentration camps and the killing of the Jews.
In all of these things, especially, in Auschwitz, the Church was seen to have played a peripheral role. That may be unfair, but that is how it is perceived. The Church seemed to be an institution that taught, on the one hand, if you masturbated or missed Sunday Mass you would go to Hell, and, on the other, blessed the tanks before they went into battle, in the case of the Italian army.
Possibly, in the past, it did not take as uncompromising a stand against war and atrocity as we would now wish it had.
At the same time - which is a very difficult thing to realise now - back in the sixties it was by no means universally accepted that Communism was a bad thing. There was an enormous enthusiasm for it. I was very left wing at the time, and when I went to East Germany, I thought this was the 'future'.
The Church perhaps thought it had to compete with Communism in some sense at an ideological level, and this results in the great emphasis in Gaudium et Spes on what one might call social Christianity: we must indulge in a purely individualistic morality - the common good should be our good!
The kind of vertical 'high' Christianity that I was brought up in - which was about grace, and salvation of the soul in the next world - was replaced by a notion that we must be the yeast for a brave new world.
How divided is the Catholic Church in Great Britain?
What I would call the orthodox remnant is extremely small in Great Britain and although there are some very good priests, particularly some younger ones who believe in what I would call a supernatural dimension, the great bulk of the clergy and those in the bureaucratic and other structures of the Church are made in the mould of the post-Vatican II social-Catholicism.
Archbishop Derek Warlock, late of Liverpool, was very strong on this. It is that social-Catholicism, combined with the great drive for unity with the Church of England, which ensured that specifically Catholic things like veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, belief in the Real Presence and belief in the authority of the Pope, were all played down as impediments to unity among the Christian churches.
Under Cardinal Hume, the Church very successfully managed to change itself in many of its externals, so that from being a kind of immigrant sect it became almost indistinguishable from the Church of England. The two might have blended together, and that was really only sabotaged by the decision of the Church of England to ordain women.
How would you evaluate Cardinal Hume's stewardship of the Church?
It is difficult to generalise on Hume, because he reigned for a long time and went through different phases. Towards the end of his reign there was evidence that he was returning to a more orthodox approach. For example, the bishops published a document called One Bread One Body, which was orthodox. Cardinal Hume wrote an excellent accompanying letter, which was read out from pulpits.
In many ways he was a fine leader with a sort of fundamental piety which he derived from his mother. But the fact is he did preside over this liberal regime, and it was under his nose that very dubious catechetical texts were published and used in the Catholic schools. He has to bear responsibility for what happened.
What is your own assessment of the liturgical changes?
My parents had four children who were raised Catholics, and all practise the Catholic religion to this day; but they had twelve grandchildren, none of whom practise the faith.
What gave me a favourable outlook was the liturgy at Ampleforth, the Benedictine-run school I attended in England. I hated the place, but the liturgy made one able to believe in the mysteries of the faith, whereas I think these rather banal post-Vatican II services bored my children to death: ugly language, no mystery and very much subject to the personality of the priest who happened to be conducting the service. It was one of the major reasons why they lost their faith.
Admittedly, the Mass is something so extraordinary, that too much emphasis should not be put on the external trappings - though I have come to realise that more was lost than I realised. In fact, I am almost a convert to the idea that the old Mass should be brought back.
Are there any signs of hope for the future?
The post-Conciliar strategy, which was meant to make the Church much more successful, has failed, and is seen to have failed. Many of the younger priests I know are very orthodox and very sound. It is the so- called radicals and progressives of the sixties who have become totally dated like the architecture. I think that things can only get better and are getting better; but the fact is they are only getting better for a remnant, a very small, much reduced Church. In England, we are going to end up with a much more orthodox Church, a Church which recognises its supernatural calling, but a much, much smaller Church.
What of the role of John Paul II?
I think that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was crucial in enabling orthodox Catholics who had been lying low for decades - every time they spoke up they were told the Church does not believe this or that anymore - to be vindicated in their orthodox beliefs. This is one, perhaps his finest achievement. In some circles, the names of the Holy Father and Cardinal Ratzinger produce a jeer. That is good. The Holy Father himself said that the Church has to be a sign of contradiction.
How do you view your own role as a lay Catholic writer?
The novel is very important, because it brings together many different facets of human life. A novelist, who is a Catholic, is in a position to demonstrate that not all Catholics are psychological 'weirdos' - which is how many perceive those with a commitment to religious beliefs and practice. But it can be a problem if people think that because a writer is a Catholic, his novels are not for me; or if you have the pious Catholic who reads your novels appalled by the sex and violence. So you fall between the two stools. Still I have had a very good run. Graham Greene has shown that a Catholic novelist can reach a mass readership.
What of the transformation in the literary world of the drama of the human soul to a social drama?
I think that is how I would justify my novels, namely, to ensure the reader - even the agnostic reader - understands how the fight between good and evil takes place in the life of individuals. In a sense, we return to where we started, for these novels are exhibits to be presented to the younger generation about the reality of original sin.
As for a sociological rather than a supernatural explanation of human motivation, one affects the other. I am sure that the general tide of opinion and behaviour and the scientific approach to life have coloured the Church's own approach.
There is some truth in the fact that social factors do affect people but, in the end, I think we are born as individuals and we die as individuals. I do not think that voting Labor is enough to get you through the gates of Heaven.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 12 No 10 (November 1999), p. 8
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