Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

The great ‘adventure story’ of British Catholicism

Roy Hattersley would never have been born had it not been that his mother ran away with the parish priest who instructed her in the Catholic faith before her marriage to a collier — the priest conducted the wedding; a fortnight later they eloped. This deplorable episode had one happy consequence: the birth of Roy, who never knew the reason for his father’s ease with Latin until after he died.

So Roy is in a way a small part of his latest book, The Catholics, a history of the church and its people in Britain since the Reformation. He is an atheist but says, ‘Religion in general — belief in the
unbelievable — fascinates me.’ He’s well disposed towards his subject:

The history of the Catholic church… is an anthology of adventure stories…. Each one is a triumph of faith and a victory for the moral certainty that reasonable doubt cannot guarantee. Catholics survived the long years of persecution because…their faith allowed no compromise. Men and women do not willingly die in defence of common sense and sweet reason.

Which — a paragraph into the book —marks the first point at which I took issue with it: the belief in the unbelievable bit. If there’s one thing that Catholic tradition insists on, it’s on the compatibility of reason and faith; indeed, you could say it’s the starting point of Catholic theology. Ronald Knox, the celebrated convert priest, got so fed up with the ubiquitous Anglican assumption that Catholics swallowed their religion on the basis of authority that his book The Belief of Catholics includes a helpful list of things Catholics wouldn’t be invited to accept merely on the say-so of the Church: it starts with the existence of God.

The account that follows of the history of Catholicism is a spirited, if error-strewn trip through five centuries, sustained by Roy’s enjoyment of a good human story, and his underlying bafflement that religion really can be the cause of so much disagreeable behaviour.

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