15 October 2006

Catholicism as a social club

Although my parents were atheist/agnostic socialists, I had much more contact with Catholicism than with any other ideology or religion when I was growing up. We lived in Ilford from the time I was 6 onwards, and there were quite a lot of Irish Catholics in that area. We lived next door to an Irish Catholic family and I was fairly familiar with their outlook even before I went to the convent.

I think the convent was a mistake on my parents’ part, because they did not want me to be pushed, i.e. given any opportunity, and they thought a convent school would be uninterested in academic achievement and probably pay more attention to social graces and moral uplift. However, in one respect they got it right. I remember my mother saying that it was a happier school than the State county high school nearby in Ilford.

In fact, I think everyone outside Catholicism has got it completely wrong, including those former Catholics (such as Karen Armstrong) who are scathingly critical from the point of view of the modern ideology, which is supposed to represent the ideal point of view.

People pick on aspects of it which can be seen as authoritarian, guilt-inducing, masochistic, or sacrificial. But as a matter of fact I think that what gives it its hold over people who are brought up in it, is that it provides people with a way of being happy in an elite society of happy people who know that, whatever their circumstances may be, everything is all right and their future is assured.

I have heard that Catholicism is abandoning its catechism, which is probably another indication that it is offering no real resistance to the modern ideology, and is losing or has lost such psychological advantages as it had.

Right at the beginning of the catechism as taught to young children, and as I heard it in the first year at the convent, you were provided with reassuring information about your place in the scheme of things. God made you and why did he make you? After a short sojourn in this world, ‘to be happy with him for ever in the next’.

So you see you have your happiness assured right from the start, and all you have to do to make sure of it is to keep a few simple rules while you get through the probationary period on earth. And even if you break the rules, don’t worry too much. You have only to confess and be absolved.

I am sure this is very effective if you were brought up in it from an early age, and what it produces, which I think is not found in other religions to the same extent, is a freedom from anxiety and capacity for enjoying the simple pleasures offered by existence which is actually a very faint imitation of post-higher level psychology.

On a higher level, of course, one is assured of one’s place in the scheme of things in a qualitatively different way, and it gives you a genuinely justified and far less fragile freedom from anxiety in the most adverse circumstances.

But a higher level is difficult to get, and people who have been brought up with this kind of social reinforcement of their happy confidence must have a very strong resistance to losing it.

The point of being a Catholic and believing in it all, is to know that you have reason to be supremely joyful. The hymn to the Virgin Mary which was sung to celebrate the end of the school year and the beginning of the happy holidays ended each verse with ‘O causa nostrae laetitiae’, meaning ‘O cause of our joy’, with the implication that the members of this religion were living in a state of joy as a result of the historical and cosmic events underlying it.

I remember, in a BBC Italian language series, a programme about a home for old people in Italy run by nuns. The old people were clearly at the end of their lives, often wheelchair-bound, and suffering from mental and physical infirmities. The Reverend Mother who was interviewed seemed very cheerful about it all, and said that they aimed to give the old people a life of peace, serenity, and ‘gioia’ or ‘joy’. This seemed to me a bit remarkable, and I think you would not have been likely to hear it from anyone but a Catholic in that position.

Actually I noticed a sort of delight in the existential situation occurring among the convent girls and was even sometimes affected by it myself. When I moved up into the lower Fifth I was sometimes walking past Lyons after school with the girls from the form, and invited to joint them in their post-school celebratory feast. They were far too nice to exclude me as insufficiently like themselves. There was a considerable sense of occasion as the available coins were produced, and it was worked out how much lemonade and cake could be obtained, which was then shared out with scrupulous fairness.

Recently I noticed a newspaper item about a party of convent girls jumping fully clothed into an outdoor swimming pool while visiting a stately home, and the nun in charge explaining that it was ‘just youthful high spirits’.

I don’t, of course, want to glorify this too much. It is essentially phoney, a way of getting some of the advantages of a higher level by repressing all the problems. But it probably makes possible a slight openness to the inconceivable possibilities of the existential situation, and one cannot think that socialist reductionism is an improvement.

Certainly, when I was at the convent, I was very critical of it although not on the normal grounds. It was, I thought, unrealistic and frivolous. It was unrealistic to overlook the overwhelming and shocking threat of the existential situation.

In my first year at the convent I had to learn a poem by Henry Charles Beeching which began,

God who created me
Nimble and light of limb,
In three elements free,
To run, to ride, to swim:
Not when the sense is dim,
But now from the heart of joy,
I would remember Him:
Take the thanks of a boy.

I found this incomprehensible. Life was real, life was terrible, life was earnest. How could you possibly take joy in temporary athletic entertainments – running and riding and swimming – that depended on being a certain age, when the later dimming of your senses was the least of what might threaten you in the future, meaning tomorrow? A far more aggressive and purposeful reaction had to be made.

However, the psychological grounds on which Catholicism is usually criticised are anti-realistic and anti-hierarchical, and effectively rule out any potentially higher level tendencies. (Reality is hierarchical. What is significant is more important than what is not, and waking life is more significant than dreaming.)