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The Catholic Church is not a place for respectable people

As Mother Teresa of Calcutta showed, the Church is for the unloved and the rejected

By on Thursday, 17 May 2012

Britain Hilary Mantel

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.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     woe betide anyone who uses a condom!

    …or wants to get married, if they’re not among the “respectable folk”.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     No doubt, since the respectable Catholics of today are sniffy about the unrespectable women who marry each other and have children together.

    You made explicitly clear in the anti-marriage thread that for you the “universal tradition of Christians” does not include same-sex couples.

    I do find this post and the self-righteous comments following it about how loving and inclusive Catholics are quite ironically funny when the thread is compared to Francis’s previous post and the self-righteous comments following it about how it’s just and right to exclude people who love each other in a way too disreputable to find your approval.

  • JessicaHof

    The self-righteousness is, I am afraid, the great beam in your on eye. I have been trying to make you understand that my position is not as you have been representing it; now you have discovered that for yourself, you accuse me of changing my mind. If you would take more care not to project your prejudices before you, you’d find it helpful.

  • JessicaHof

    There you go again. Shall e stop and try to examine what I have written rather than your half-baked gloss on it? No one is being ‘sniffy’. The universal tradition of the Church is that marriage is between one man and one woman; to say that that is how marriage has also been defined by the State is not to be sniffy, it is to state a fact. What is self-righteous about this? It is not a case of my personal approval. You seem to imagine a Christianity which is a pick and mix of what I like; that is not the way it works. The Church has a body of teaching inherited from Christ via the Apostles. That teaching tells us that marriage is what it has always been defined as; do you disagree with that as an historical summary?

    There are many instinctual acts which give us pleasure which as sinful: homosexual sex is only one of the sexual sins; onanism, fornication and adultery as all natural and give pleasure; the Church teaches these are against God’s law. You, being God, may take issue with that; the Church, not believing you are God, abides by what has always been taught.
    You don’t like it; adulterers and fornicators aren’t wild about it either.

  • (X)MCCLXIII

    Now that reminds me,

    For reasons tedious to explain, my wife ended up in a Brownie pack attached to the local protestant church. (This was the best part of two decades before we were married, mind you.) The local vicar attempted to proselytise her mother “You should come to our church, Mrs S.  We have only the best people.” “Oh, really? We’ll have anybody.”

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

    “No one is being ‘sniffy’.”

    Actually, comments on the preceding thread ranged from the outright nasty to the merely sniffy. I put you among the “sniffy”, though: while clearly disapproving and excluding, I didn’t think you were being nasty about it.

    The universal tradition of the Church is that marriage is between one man and one woman;

    Actually, Catholic Church traditions have included same-sex marriages – though admittedly not for several hundred years. Still, let’s not be picky. The current tradition of the Catholic Church is to belittle, ignore, and dismiss LGBT people and same-sex relationships, and the Church certainly has every right as a matter of religious freedom to rule that LGBT people are excluded.

    What is self-righteous about this

    You were certainly coming across as self-righteous both in arguing that same-sex couples should be excluded from the Church’s rites and now in arguing that the Church is all-inclusive. Except, obviously, where it isn’t.

    The Church has a body of teaching inherited from Christ via the
    Apostles. That teaching tells us that marriage is what it has always
    been defined as

    I requested several people on the previous thread to give me chapter and verse from the gospels or the epistles where, exactly, it says in the New Testament that same-sex couples must be legally banned from marriage.

    I got no answer. I never do. I know the Bible far better than most Christians: I know that when you claim Jesus or the Apostles “teach” you that same-sex couples are excluded from marriage, you are making this up: it has no textual validity.
    There are many instinctual acts which give us pleasure which as sinful:
    homosexual sex is only one of the sexual sins; onanism, fornication and
    adultery as all natural and give pleasure; the Church teaches these are
    against God’s law. You, being God, may take issue with that; the Church,
    not believing you are God, abides by what has always been taught.
    You don’t like it; adulterers and fornicators aren’t wild about it either.

    Well, there you go, being self-righteous and exclusive again. I’m just one of those disreputable folks who are, in your view, completely excluded from the Catholic Church.

  • JessicaHof

    Might you be persuaded to provide some links to sources for your statement about same sex marriage and the Catholic Church? The Church is all inclusive, but there are sets of rules, and if you choose not to abide by them, you exclude yourself. Your insistence on Scriptural passages ignores the fact that in the Catholic Church tradition is as strong as Scripture. Since homosexual activity is included in Paul’s list of sexual sins, I would interested in the exegesis which explained how same sex marriage fitted in with that. Your insistence on using a Protestant methodology, and using it in a flawed way is not mitigated by your self claims to superior Biblical knowledge.

    The only person excluding himself from the Church is you. Christ’s call is to repent and follow Him. He does not tell us we can do that on our terms.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

      John Boswell’s Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe: I was also impressed by the same author’s work Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

    It’s easy to take as read the Catholic Church’s current message of hatred and intolerance for my kind of people – to assume that because the Catholic hierarchy says the Church has always hated and excluded gay people, this is historically true.

    It was a genuine eye-opener – and a welcome one – to discover that historically, this is plain false.

    Since homosexual activity is included in Paul’s list of sexual sins,

    Given that neither the word nor the concept of homosexuality existed in first century CE, that’s actually textually impossible. I expect what you mean is the words of uncertain meaning: malakoi and arsenokoitai.

    Your insistence on Scriptural passages ignores the fact that in the Catholic Church tradition is as strong as Scripture.

    In the sense that Catholic tradition changes and so does the understood interpretation of Scripture, yes.

    The only person excluding himself from the Church is you. Christ’s call
    is to repent and follow Him. He does not tell us we can do that on our
    terms.

    And you’re not in the least bit interested in repenting your uncharitable, sniffy attitude to LGBT people, and “following Jesus”?

    No, I thought not.

  • JessicaHof

    I did wonder whether it was Boswell. He, and others with axes to grind are viewed by other historians with some suspicion. Neither in the Orthodox nor the Catholic Churches is there any sign of the Church itself approving what you claim; there are certainly instances of individuals defying the rules. St. Paul clearly disapproves of men sleeping with men, so whether you call that homosexuality or not, the NT calls that activity sin; you wish to engage in it and don’t like someone calling it sin; understandable. Tradition develops, and contrary to your own hate-filled ranting, I am far from ‘hating’ anyone – so do stop making assumptions. http://jessicahof.wordpress.com/

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     “I have been trying to make you understand that my position is not as you have been representing it”

    Oh. What are you claiming I’ve got wrong about your position? Your position, as you made clear on the anti-marriage thread and here, is that the Catholic Church rigidly excludes and belittles LGBT people and same-sex relationships – too disreputable to be included or considered.

    That you regard LGBT people as of so little account that you ignore their exclusion and pretend the Catholic Church is “inclusive” is, well, interesting. in a way.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     I am far from ‘hating’ anyone – so do stop making assumptions.

    I did say that you were just sniffy, not hateful, Jessica. There were plenty of nasty, hateful comments left by good respectable Christians on that other thread, though. You let them stand, evidently regarding hatred directed as LGBT people as too normal to be worth arguing about.

  • JessicaHof

    If, when you’ve stopped ranting, you can point out where I have approved anyone belittling gay people, you’d be showing you had a point rather than a chip on your shoulder the size of Castle Mound.

    The Church is inclusive to all repentant sinners – a point you repeatedly ignore.

  • JessicaHof

    Hatred is, alas, spewing from you. Where is this belittling stuff – give me examples of the teaching of the Church which approve this as a Catholic position. You harp on about this and provide not an example.

  • JessicaHof

    Edinburgh Eye – if you look beyond your own anger at what has happened elsewhere in the world, let me give you some examples from British Columbia in Canada as an example of what could happen here:
    - there are required classes for primary school kids to teach them that homosexuality is normal, and on par with heterosexuality. True, many people believe this, but now that point of view is, in fact, being forced down the throats of Catholics. Even if my friend does not believe this, she has to send her kids to these classes. They are not optional. Even If she home schools, she has to teach this material. It is not optional. Catholic teachers have to teach this class or refuse at risk to their teaching license.
    - in Vancouver recently a Catholic teacher wrote a letter to the newspaper when homosexual marriage was first allowed, stating his opposition to same. He made no reference to his profession as a teacher; he just signed his name. The BC Teachers Federation called him on the carpet and pulled his license for “conduct unbecoming a teacher”. He can no longer teach in that province.
    - In Alberta, a gay rights activist complained to the local Human Rights Commission about an opinion piece published by a priest in a Catholic journal, opposing same-sex marriage. The commission fined the priest and the journal a few thousand dollars. The priest took the case to a real court, and it was overturned, but not before it cost him and the journal thousands in court costs. The activist paid nothing (complainants have their legal fees paid by the court).
    - In British Columbia, state marriage commissioners are barred from refusing to marry same-sex couples. That means that a conscientious Catholic cannot be a state marriage commissioner. She or he must choose between her or his faith and what admittedly is not a full-time job, but a job nonetheless. The courts (and the aforementioned Human Rights Commissions) know about this and are fine with it.

    These things have already happened in parts of Canada – and you think it is paranoid of me and others to fear that this thin end of the wedge will lead to situations where Catholics may be forced to act against their consciences? Are you really assuring me that what has happened in BC could not happen here? Maybe the chip on your shoulders stops you turning your neck to see what is happening elsewhere in the world – but some of us have contacts elsewhere, and what we hear could so easily happen here.

  • Alberto

    EdinburghEye, I take for granted you are a Catholic. Therefore I imagine you accept the notion of sin. The sinful nature of sodomy is clearly stated both in the Scriptures and elsewehere in Catholic magisterium, as is the “heterosexual” character of marriage. Can’t you see the difference between accepting sinners and accepting sin? Why are you sodomites so smug that you think your sins smell of roses? Being a sinner is one thing – being arrogant and persistent about it is another.