The Catholic Church in Britain: Piers Paul Read interviewed by 'AD2000'

The Catholic Church in Britain: Piers Paul Read interviewed by 'AD2000'

Paul Gray

Piers Paul Read is a successful modern writer whose novels touch on some of the main difficulties experienced by contemporary Christians.

'AD2000' writer, Paul Gray, visited Read in London recently and found a man prepared to talk bluntly about the problems of the Catholic Church in Britain and the world.

PAUL GRAY: Several of your novels deal with what might be called "liberation theology issues". For example, in The Free Frenchman you have a priest caught up in the work of the French Communist Party trying to decide whether his priestly duties or his commitment to the class struggle should make first claim on him. You portray him quite sympathetically, even though you clearly are against his style of thinking.

Why do you think that the "liberation theology" style of thinking is so prevalent in today's Church?

PIERS PAUL READ: I think when you are faced with what appears to be prima facie a grievous social injustice, I mean the very rich versus the very poor, I can see that if you are young and impatient then there is a temptation in Marxism, that you can see it as a tool for bringing about social equality.

What you might call this heresy is very, very deep. We have it here in a great quarrel we are having about the schools in this diocese. I cannot see how a Christian can really think he is doing good by coercing other people to do things they don't want to do. How can coercion be a part of charity? This to me is the flaw behind this way of thinking - however benevolent the intention behind political programs, whether they are Marxist or socialist or whatever.

What is good, surely, in charity is conversion of the heart and someone giving to the poor. I think giving to the poor is very good but the goodness of it isn't the transfer of cash from one bank account to the other, it is the benevolence in the heart of the person, don't you think? And so a kind of social program which involves expropriation and, in many cases as it has turned out, extermination of whole classes and whole nations, can't be Christian.

GRAY: You referred to an argument about the schools in this diocese. What is that about?

READ: In this country, there are private or what we call public Catholic schools, run mainly by the big religious orders, the Benedictines and to a lesser extent the Jesuits, and they represent one of the big institutions in the country. But also there are Catholic schools within the State system because in the 19th century, when there were no schools, really, for the working classes, the Catholic Church started up its own Catholic schools, particularly Cardinal Manning, for the enormous number of Irish immigrants who were coming into the country. They started all these schools and then the State gradually sort of took over the education of the working classes. They wanted to incorporate the Catholic and Anglican schools into the state system. Eventually in 1949 a deal was struck whereby Catholic schools would be paid for by the State but still controlled largely by the Church through the appointment of school governors by the diocese.

The Diocesan Educational Service became a bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy became, I would say, ideologically determined to close down some very, very good local schools, one of which is called Cardinal Vaughan Memorial school, where my son went. It removed the sixth form, and effectively closed the school and made it into quite a different kind of school and created a sixth form college. It was really a socialistic impulse. It had nothing to do with religion. Because there was a new education bill just passed, it enabled some of the Catholic schools actually to try to opt out of the control of the diocese to some extent. It is all very complicated, but there is a great battle going on, and I would say it is a case of the Cardinal being inveigled into taking a political line, but with a veneer of religious rhetoric to support him.

GRAY: And the rhetoric I suppose concerns "justice" and equality and so on?

READ: Absolutely, and it's all twenty years out of date - that is what is so depressing. I mean the Catholic Church goes off and does that, catches on to the fashionable political ideas twenty years later when no one else believes in them.

Otherwise I sense in England that in a way there is a change for the better taking place in the Church. I mean the seminary in London is full of young trainee priests, very keen on orthodoxy and on liturgy and they have terrible struggles with their kind of post-conciliar trendy professors, who are always trying to impose on them unorthodox, ecumenical, fashionable, liberation theologian-style ideas and it is the young seminarians themselves who won't accept these and want to go back to a much more solid basis for the Church.

GRAY: That is most interesting. Would most of the young seminarians be in that position?

READ: I think - I am only talking about Allen Hall, that's the only one I have been told about in London - but I think there is definitely a move back to greater mystery and beauty in the liturgy.

Cardinal Hume gave a talk in the summer to some pilgrims, and there was a sort of coded message. He said there were three things that were important. One was to hand on the faith as we have been taught it, which is a sort of coded way of saying hand on the harder doctrines. Another was I think the beauty of the liturgy and the mystery and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and the third was the family.

They are all quite conservative notions, so I think since he is a man who is quite sensitive to the way the flock is feeling, I think this is in a way a rather good sign.

GRAY: I would say in Australia the problem is a sort of emptiness in the Church which young people notice. I think many feel the Church is lacking something which it did not previously lack, and I think the reason for that is that there has been a sort of revolution in, or abandonment of catechetics in the last 15 years. Would you see that as the key thing?

READ: I think it is the key thing.

I think it's an abandonment of teaching the central message of salvation. I don't think they teach that any more. I'm amazed that any of my children, if they believe in it, do believe in it because even though they have mostly been to Catholic schools, the kind of thing they are taught is so bland and banal. There is none of the drama of judgement. I don't think the priests here dare mention judgement or the possibility of damnation or the importance of belief in Christ for the salvation of your soul.

So you get God projected as a sort of kindly amiable figure, who wouldn't hurt a fly. If you read through the New Testament I think one of the things that comes across is the sort of urgency with which Jesus is trying to warn us all of something. You know, unless we repent, unless we convert, and unless we appeal to Him, then we have had it. Do you get any of that in Australia? Here we don't get any of that sort of urgency.

GRAY: It seems to me that is the international process at work. The moral lessons of Christianity seem to have been forgotten about, or dropped or something.

READ: Yes, and what does it become, a sort of ethnic glee club?

GRAY: It may become that, and inherent in that is the notion of being a minority concern. It seems that the Church is becoming a minority concern. That's the view I have; the reason that the number of people practising Christianity has declined is simply that people don't know what the Church is for, if it's not something that's about telling you to repent.

READ: Or about grace. They rarely talk about grace - grace through the sacraments, the necessity for grace. I think the ecumenical concept was a good one - it was absurd in the old days when Catholics and Protestants were always slanging each other and so on. But the fact is that since the Catholic Church has become so tolerant, people like my son think that, "Well, you know there is not much difference between the Church of Rome and the Church of England, the Church of England is much more easy going, they don't have to go to church, they don't make a fuss about this and that". The temptation for him is to slide into a sort of passive Anglicanism, because of what he has been taught.

I keep telling my children what I believe but I think they think I'm a sort of eccentric, because it's not what they hear preached from the churches.

GRAY: This problem makes it very difficult for Catholic parents.

READ: It makes it very difficult. I had to move from our local parish church to another church simply because the message that was being preached there was so different from what I was telling the children at home.

Generally, Catholics used to always be proud of the fact in England that they didn't pick and choose their parish, that you just went to the local church and if it had an intolerably bigoted old Irish priest, well, too bad. But it becomes impossible for parents when what they are teaching their children is quite different from what they are being taught in the church.

GRAY: We have referred to the apparent abandonment of the supernatural core of the Christian religion. How do you treat this in your work as a novelist - do you treat the supernatural as a concept? Does this come into your writings?

READ: Yes, I think so. I mean I try to show the workings of the grace of God, and of the anti-Grace of the devil, through my characters. Yes, very much so. Perhaps less so in a way in The Free Frenchman than in some of the earlier novels. Some of the earlier novels were at one and the same time more political but also more religious. My last novel was called A Season in the West - it wasn't particularly religious either but it was meant to show the corruption that comes about if you are cut off from the grace of God.

GRAY: A number of your novels illustrate the mentality of political radicalism very clearly. Do you see political radicalism as a kind of alternative to religion in some people's minds?

READ: Yes, I do, and I try to show it in The Free Frenchman and I try to show it in many of my novels: the sort of satanic temptation of trying to build heaven on earth. As we said earlier, denying the supernatural element in the spiritual life. I mean I do think in that sense that liberation theology is evil. I don't think it is just incorrect - I think it is evil. It's succumbing to the temptation Christ was subjected to when he was on top of the mountain and the devil said "You can turn these stones into bread, or you can have dominion over the whole world". I mean if Christ wanted to turn stones into bread he could have fed everyone in the whole world, couldn't he? And I think that is the temptation - they want to turn stones into bread. As Christ said to the Devil "Man does not live on bread alone". The liberation theologians - their message is "Bread is all that matters really", isn't it?

I'm very against feminism too. I'm very disappointed in the Pope's meditation on women. I admire the Pope in many ways, but he seems to trim sometimes slightly. There a good article in AD2000 about how the last straw for Lefebvre was when the Pope appeared at Assisi with the Indian Chieftain, the Buddhist, and the Shintoist. I think that was a terrible mistake.

GRAY: Events such as that have great symbolism, and the symbolism is very powerful.

READ: Yes, and the Pope seemed to be saying, "I am one among many leaders of different religions, and Catholicism is one among many religions", and it's not. To me it's not.

GRAY: In an article in the Christmas issue of AD2000 I tried to make the point that the Vatican's teaching on liberation theology seems to be a mistake as well. It seems to me that they are trying to adopt an acceptable form of liberation theology which is, to me, a logical impossibility.

READ: I read the Vatican's Instructions on Liberation Theology, and I think what happened is that Ratzinger, who I think is very lucid, an amazingly intelligent man - I heard him lecture at Cambridge and he has a very impressive presence - I think he wrote a document putting liberation theology down, and then the Pope said to him "Steady on, perhaps we are going to offend an awful lot of people if we say that", so they wrote a trimming second part.

It's a mistake. The Pope himself says bishops should say what they believe, they shouldn't be political in that sense, to worry what is going to upset the American church or the South American church. They should argue from conviction if they believe that their convictions are coming from God. If they don't believe their convictions are coming from God then they should shut up.

GRAY: It would appear that there is still going to be a lot of struggle over this question. I would see it as one aspect of the broader problem, which is the adoption by the Church of basically trendy, non-religious themes. Even though we have a good Pope at the moment, certain trendy items still appear on the agenda. As to what the outcome will be?

READ: Part of one's faith is not to abandon the Church. As I say, in this country, things in a sense are getting better. I do think that the younger priests realise that they have no role unless the Church is what it was - otherwise they are just becoming social workers.

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