In this new, weekly column. I shall speak my mind plainly but with affection for all and hatred for none. You will find no challenges to your faith here. One either accepts that the Lord of Life is Who He said He was and that His Church is what He said she would be or one does not. I do. So there.
Faith, as the Catechism says, is a supernatural gift of God, by which we are enabled to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed. And we Catholics are a merry lot. We do not merely believe without doubting: we believe cheerfully without doubting.
When I was at Cambridge, a friend from Oxford, a grandson of the Anglican bishop of that diocese, began to show signs of interest in the Faith. I took him on a walking tour of Yorkshire, where – as if by chance – we found ourselves lodging in the homes of working-class Catholics, the presbyteries of the more entertaining Catholic clergy (of whom Yorkshire has a collectable selection), a stately home (also Catholic), and finally an Old Rectory belonging to a Catholic great-grandson of Charles Dickens.
As the stars rose above the stone-built church surrounded by whispering chestnut-trees, we sat in the garden and talked. Christopher Dickens turned to my friend and said, “Don’t dither. Deciding to join the Church is like deciding to get married. Faint heart never won fair lady.”
That did the trick. My friend later wrote to me to say he had gone to his bedroom and cried, for he knew that his Anglican life was over. He was received into the Church, and he and his wife are relentless campaigners against baby-butchering.
I once asked him why he had first been attracted to the Church. He said: “Most people of religion are somewhere between po-faced and pi, but you Catholics are always laughing. I want to share that happiness.”
Don’t worry: this column will not be all gush and fluff. It will deal with the hard questions. Is Brexit immoral? Should a Bloody Sunday paratrooper be prosecuted when IRA murderers walked free under the Good Friday agreement? Should the Pope have agreed to open the Vatican archives on his predecessor Pius XII to assist those hoping (against hope, as it will turn out) to brand him a Nazi-loving Jew-hater? Should the UK Government force small children to endure homosexual propaganda (a question that the Latin grammars would describe as “expecting the answer No”)? Should the Church take sides in the climate debate?
Let me start with the hardest question. Baptisms, attendances at Mass, marriages in church and vocations in the Western countries are declining. The bean-counters say the Church will have vanished within a generation.
Why this decline in the West, while the Third-World churches are full to bursting? Our enemies say it is because we are more sophisticated and well educated. But that is racist. One only has to march up and down the Via delle Conciliazione conversing in Latin with a bishop from Africa on Thomistic theology, as I once did when editing the British Catholic newspaper The Universe, to realise that there is no lack of sophistication outside the West, though there is often a lack of opportunity.
The decline in the Western Church is reversible. Some years ago, the Parish Church in the centre of Limerick, an Italianate basilica built by the Jesuits, was decaying and empty. Next door, a draughty Georgian presbytery was crumbling.
A new Order, the Canons of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which is growing like Topsy worldwide, moved into the presbytery and survived there for five years before installing hot water. They were spending every penny on fixing up the church, which, on the day of my visit, was packed to the doors for a Pontifical Sung High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, with Cardinal Burke presiding.
There is no need for the Church in the West to decline. But it is the more traditional and, in the hard-working rather than the belligerent sense, militant orders that are fostering growth amid the general decline. Bishops do not like to talk about the decline: but every bishop could do a lot worse than study the work of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. As the Man said: “Go, and do thou likewise.”