Amid all the gloomy headlines in the newspapers there was one in the Telegraph on Monday which set my antennae twitching: “The Catholic Church is no place for respectable people, says Mantel.” My immediate response was a sigh of relief and the thought, “Thank God for that.” Otherwise, of course, I would be excluded from it – along with all the other sinners and disreputable characters, the tax collectors, the social lepers, the lunatics and the ladies of the night whom Christ came down on earth to die for. Phew! What a lucky escape. Imagine if I had been born “respectable”: what a fate.
Reading the small print underneath the headline I immediately sinned again: uncharitable thoughts aimed at Hilary Mantel, Booker prize winning novelist, member of the cultural establishment (she will be discussing her writing at the Hay Festival in June) and thus someone whose opinions must be taken with all due seriousness. It seems that she was raised a Catholic and went to a convent school, clearly a brutal and nasty place. No wonder she now says that the child abuse scandals demonstrate the “cruelty” and “hypocrisy” of the Church. In retrospect she thinks “I should never have been brought up a Catholic. Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.”
About the nuns of her childhood, “I thought they were among the worst people I knew.” Yet she is also prepared to say that “in a cold-blooded kind of way, as a writer I’ve had full value from Catholicism. It’s a great training in doubleness – this looks like bread but it is actually a man’s body… And that’s very much a writer’s way of thinking.”
I was going to write a full riposte to this highly emotive personal opinion when I saw that two Letters in yesterday’s Telegraph have done the job much more temperately and reasonably than I would have done: David Cubbon of Doncaster writes, “I’m a Catholic convert who was born into Methodism, was schooled in the Church of England and tasted atheism before being welcomed into the Catholic faith. Child abuse is not owned by the Catholic Church, it lurks in all large organisations involving children. All the Catholics I speak to abhor the actions of paedophile priests… My experience in the Church has only been positive. The priests in my parish are a force for good, and should not be denigrated unfairly.”
Robert Tickle of Bedfordshire writes: “I am sure that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, caring for the unloved and the rejected, would agree that the Catholic Church is not a place for respectable people. The Church preaches an option for the poor, not the respectable… Christians believe that it was those who thought themselves respectable, the Pharisees, who sought the death of Jesus. The Church is for all, especially those outside it, but the self-satisfied do not feel they need God’s help…”
I certainly do not want to describe Ms Mantel as a Pharisee but she needs to be more careful in future how she phrases her words when she talks to the press. I discussed her remarks with a friend (who went to the same convent boarding school as I did and who also emerged from the experience without feeling permanently scarred) and the friend said, “Why doesn’t she join the Church of England? It’s full of respectable people.” This is unfair. I have several Anglican friends and I am glad to say I don’t find them any more respectable than I am.
Ms Mantel also comments she would never call for a Catholic priest on her death-bed. Perhaps she ought to read Brideshead Revisited; the scene of Lord Marchmain’s death, assisted by a very ordinary Irish priest, would bring a tear to her eye. Who knows? She might decide she would rather not be so respectable after all.