British Catholicism: the salt has lost its flavour

British Catholicism: the salt has lost its flavour

John Haldane

No one interested in the position of religion within Western culture and society can fail to be aware that it is now under fairly sustained attack.

On the one hand there are those who argue that the values of political liberalism - freedom of thought and expression, toleration and respect for persons - are all threatened by authoritarian, dogmatic religiously identified communities.

On the other, there are atheist critics such as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris in America and Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling in Britain who maintain that quite apart from any social and political implication, religion as such is a malign force, shaping minds through superstition and fantasy and inhibiting the power of reason.

Proponents of the second view also press the first, while those who claim only to be concerned with the introduction of religion into the social field would require believers to adopt an attitude to their faiths that would equate it to a private enthusiasm or hobby.

It is quite common in Britain to hear people say in defence against such criticisms that their religion is a personal thing, a matter of how they choose to live, not a set of controversial claims about the nature of reality or the necessary conditions of salvation, let alone a set of demands about how human beings in general should live.

Without wishing to probe the decency or sincerity of such people I do want to challenge the intellectual feebleness of this response to the critics of religion. Of course there is nothing new about lukewarm faith, lazy thinking or comfortable conformism. What is new, however, is that these vices are now exhibited among those who regard themselves as educated, thinking believers.

It is an interesting question how this has come about. Part of the explanation so far as Roman Catholicism is concerned is the ambition to be fully part of society, which has made Catholics cautious of being counter-cultural. Another is the expansion of higher education, which saw humanities and social science degrees being awarded to ever- larger numbers of people on the basis of intellectually diluted courses in social, cultural, religious, educational and media studies.

Catholics were among the main beneficiaries of these expansions through the elevation of teacher-training institutions to university college status. In earlier times training towards teaching had no particular tendency to weaken students' faith, and they viewed it, quite properly, as a form of preparation for entry to an important profession through which they could also serve their communities.

With the ambition of former training colleges to attain university status, however, came a corresponding ambition to provide additional degree programs, and these tended to be in line with current secular fashions in social and cultural studies.

Of course, the history of Catholic entry into higher education and into middle class society is more complex, bringing benefits and gains as well as losses. But it is necessary to observe something about British Catholicism and urgent to rectify it, namely, that it is decidedly unintellectual, rarely rising above the level of demandingness of newspaper or magazine journalism.


Such has been the generous spirit of recent ecumenism, and such the sense of religion in general being under attack, that Anglicans and Presbyterians who have traditionally been better educated do not give public voice to their estimate of the contemporary Catholic intellectual contribution. They would not be honest to their own critical standards, however, if they did not think that what they have encountered is pretty poor. Certainly when released from the restraints of politeness a number have expressed themselves privately on the matter.

The result of this situation is that Catholics know little about the history of their faith, its distinctive content, its theological, philosophical, literary and artistic products, its traditions of spirituality, the nature and modes of grace, the gravity of sin, and so on. Some of these matters should be known about as part of Catholic cultural literacy, some for the intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual treasures they offer, and others as matters of practical religion: truths necessary for salvation.

Ill-formed in faith, unrigorous in thought, and socially-conformist in disposition, the new Catholic middle classes have little interest in intellectual enquiry or in confronting serious challenges, especially those directed at their own faith. The fading fashion for talk of social justice, and the new found favour of environmental concern, are not exceptions to this. Quite the contrary, they are welcomed as topics of concern as having the merit of being endorsed by current secular orthodoxy.

Bishops are rightly concerned about providing priests for the Catholic population, but without intellectual leadership and sound formation that population will continue to diminish, rendered weak by indifference, comfortable in conformism, and intellectually and spiritually unfit to withstand the attacks of secularists and sceptics.

Where now the Catholic Evidence Guild? Where now the likes of Chesterton? Dawson? Butler? Anscombe? The seed has grown weak, the salt has lost its flavour, and the leaders are growing old. Unless efforts are made to rectify the situation, in ten years time there may be no such thing as British Catholic intellectual culture.

Dr John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at St Andrews University in Scotland and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture. His article first appeared in the 'Catholic Times'.

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