Protestants and Papists

by Maria on January 15, 2004

I recently finished the first set of political memoirs I can ever remember completing; Matthew Parris’s ‘Chance Witness’. It’s an enjoyable read, though Parris comes across as a cold fish. The early chapters about growing up a colonial child in Cyprus and Africa are much richer than the usual politicians’ gallop through childhood. They pit the young Master Parris as a cradle curmudgeon, familiar with the uncomfortable truths of conservatism from the onset of speech, against his well-intentioned but unreflective liberal mother. At Cambridge, Parris is disappointed by the tribal instincts of the great minds of his generation, and muses that people join labour/conservative/rugger bugger/etc. cliques simply because of their personality types. While he refrains from dishing the dirt on Tory governments of the 1980s in the way we all wish he would, Parris does give into a peculiarly English phobia; a mild but constant dislike, disdain or distrust of Catholics.

“Our senior philiosophy done at Clare and my director of studies; T. J. Smiley, was an acknowledged genius in his field: logic. Elizabeth Anscombe, the renowned Wittgensteinian scholar, was lecturing at the university and vastly respected – almost mobbed – for her insight. But both Anscombe and Smiley were Catholics. Catholicism is superstition: this much was obvious to me. It did not therefore seem to me that the rigour of Anscombe’s and Smiley’s respective academic analyses could have leaked out much into their worldly lives. Here were two virtuous people who were unquestionably cleverer than I would ever be. My best friend, Andrew Carver, was unquestionably so. But Andrew was casting around unsure what to do, and Smiley and Anscombe were praying to the Virgin Mary. So maybe there was hope for me in the world, maybe I could, after all, get a grip.”

It’s a strange aside, curious rather than offensive, and speaks to a common perception of Catholics as being faintly ridiculous. But there’s another aspect to the widely held English suspicion of Catholics. Reading Parris, I was reminded of Charlotte Bronte’s autobiographical character Lucy Snowe’s mix of condescension and real horror at her encounters with Belgian Catholics. Then again, I thought of Philip Pullman’s trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver as illustrations of the (rather good) historical reasons why institutional Catholicism is distrusted by English Protestants, the foot soldiers of the Enlightenment. But finally, I remembered standing in WH Smith’s on Sloane Square reading an opinion piece in the Times which named half a dozen prominent Catholics and asked, given that these people must of course believe in the virgin birth, miracles, saints, and any amount of cant, whether they should have a role in British public life at all. I wondered if the piece would ever have been published, had its subject been prominent British Jews.

But Parris is simply dismissive, and by no means uniform. He has plenty of time for Chris Patten;

“One of the nice things about Patten was that he combined personal probity and religious conviction with a tolerant uncensoriousness of others.”

Which seems to suggest one reason for the general suspicion of Catholics (and indeed Christians in general); the fear of proselytism. Though it still seems odd to ridicule the logicians for (allegedly) keeping their spiritual and professional lives quite separate, and to praise Chris Patten for it.

In any case, ‘Chance Witness’ is an entertaining and informative read, though it relies far too heavily on newspaper columns towards the end and is marked by Parris’ strange aversion to the comma. There are some really choice titbits:

– Parris landed in Yale in the 1970s to study political science. “But at that time everyone in political science in America … was beavering away to show that important truths could be learned about politics through feeding data about the news into computers and establishing ‘correlations’. Five minutes’ reflection was sufficient to conclude this was unlikely to be the case: Yale graduate school looked to spend five decades reaching the same conclusion. I left them to it.”

– “I did not understand New Labour. It feels alien – somehow Soviet – to me. The Tories could be an appalling bunch of shits but they were my shits, and all too human. The new crowd were a very different kind of shit, and behind the warm words I sensed a coldness and a sort of vacuum.”

– “William (Hague) turned up only at the end of that evening at Alan’s (Duncan). He had not joined us for dinner, at which Alan’s other guest was Andrew Sullivan, another Oxford friend. Now a magazine editor in the United States and an acknowledged writer and thoughtful right-wing publicist for gay emancipation, Andrew is one of the first generations of HIV-positive men who are not going to die young, do not need to make a big thing and can get on with their lives. I did not know then he was gay. He was a slight, pale, teasing, alluring, strangely assured young man. Now he’s pumping iron.”



Backword Dave 01.15.04 at 1:21 pm

I saw this in Waterstone’s and just managed to resist buying it. I knew that I was going to succumb anyway, if only because he used to be a better runner than I am, and I always liked him on “Weekend World” and “Grumpy Old Men.”
I may buy it today, even if he is nice about Sullivan.


rea 01.15.04 at 1:38 pm

“named half a dozen prominent Catholics and asked, given that these people must of course believe in the virgin birth, miracles, saints, and any amount of cant, whether they should have a role in British public life at all”

I thought Episcopalians (as we call them here in the US) believed in that stuff, too. Did this guy think that the Archbishop of Canterbury should withdraw from public life?


Maria 01.15.04 at 2:05 pm

Dave, I’ll happily post you my copy (only slightly used…). Anything to stop the accumulation of paperbacks in my flat! Email me if you like; mfarrel at bigfoot dot com.


sd 01.15.04 at 3:54 pm

I too have noticed the rather remarkable staying power of English anti-Catholicism, a rather ugly blemish on the culture that seems to cut across ideological lines (old school English conservatives disdain Continental religion, while English leftists seem to use Catholicism as a dumping ground for everything they dislike about traditional and/or organized religion in general).

I wonder if the fact that a person can come to anti-Catholicism from either the right or the left might have something to do with its longevity in England. Often these kinds of ethnic or religious biases fall out of favor because one faction in a society shames the rest into abandoning its biases.


Jimmy Doyle 01.15.04 at 4:28 pm

I was also at Clare, and taught by Smiley and Anscombe. I envy Parris’s untroubled intellectual vision and self-confidence. Many others’ reactions would have been, “if some of the best philosophers in the world (don’t forget Dummett, Geach, van Fraassen, Charles Taylor and many more) believe this stuff, maybe there’s more to it than I had thought.” But no. “Catholicism is superstition: this much was obvious to me.”


bob mcmanus 01.15.04 at 4:52 pm

I thought there had been a mid-50s English intellectual fad of conversion to Catholicism. Waugh, Muggeridge. I had thought this was somehow connected to English politics, High Church getting too liberal. Does anyone here know about this?


Chris Bertram 01.15.04 at 5:15 pm

I wonder how right this suggestion of anti-Catholicism (as such) is – at least for the post-WW2 period. Historically there was a lot of this stuff but I guess that most contemporary hostility is directed at all religious enthusiasts and that Methodists, Presbyterians, etc also get viewed with suspicion from the mainstream. Anglicans are different, of course, because rightly or wrongly, they’re suspected of not believing very much at all.


Jimmy Doyle 01.15.04 at 5:43 pm

Chris: I take your point. But what’s the explanation for Matthew Yglesias?


Chris Bertram 01.15.04 at 5:48 pm

What sort of explanation for him are you looking for: evolutionary, psychological, causal, intentional, unintentional …..?


Another Damned Medievalist 01.15.04 at 7:00 pm

I thought Pullman’s trilogy also had nasty Calvinists?


Simon Kinahan 01.15.04 at 7:39 pm

sd: English anti-catholicism is odd. There’s almost never any venom in it these days (unlike, say, anti-Americanism), but it lasts as a cultural trait. I think it is tied up with English nationalism and with our view of ourselves as pragmatic and empirical, opposed to Europeans, who are (seen as) tied up in over-arching intellectual abstractions and totalitarian schemes. In that respect, it is related to English anti-communism and Euroskepticism.

bob macmanus: Hasn’t there always been a drift of High Anglicans towards Catholism ? The ambiguous faith of some Stewart monarchs and aristocrats, the late-19th century Oxford movement, the switch made by some priests in the last few years due to opposition to women priests, and so on.

another damned medievalist: In Lyra’s world in Pullman’s books, the Church’s headquarters are in Geneva, but we’re told that Calvin was pope and moved there from Rome. Catholic traditions, such as priestly celebacy, are in force. Presumably, in that world, the counter-reformation never happened, and the Catholic church capitulated to the protestant demands for reform, re-unifying the church. It is therefore, I suppose, both Catholic and Calvinist, combining two English dislikes into one.


Jon H 01.15.04 at 8:16 pm

“But what’s the explanation for Matthew Yglesias?”

His weblog picture just makes him *look* short, when he isn’t.

Or, were you looking for another explanation?


Miriam 01.16.04 at 1:06 am

There are several varieties of anti-Catholicism going around. Among them: the rationalist variety, which simply thinks that Catholicism is not worthy of intellectual investigation; the anti-hierarchical or anti-clerical variety, which has no beef with lay Catholics, little interest in theology per se, but a lot of problems with the folks in charge; and the evangelical/fundamentalist variety, rooted in theological and consequent social objections. #3 is usually far more invested in “traditional” anti-Catholic literature than are #1 and #2; do a bit of Googling and Amazon-ing, and you’ll be amazed at how many propagandistic survivals there are from the 19th c. and earlier. (Charles Chiniquy, “Maria Monk,” the novelist Deborah Alcock, various abridgments of John Foxe, etc.)


Keith 01.16.04 at 3:07 am

…given that these people must of course believe in the virgin birth, miracles, saints, and any amount of cant…

This is not, strictly speaking, true; more of a generalization. My wife is Catholic, born and raised, yet she rejects the Virgin Birth, Papal infalibility, the ban on BC, disdains confession and thinks Jesus is just guy with a few interesting ideas. She’s all about the Saints and the ceremony though, and remians a self professed Catholic for the connection through tradition to her family and Hispanic culture. I’ve found that most Catholic Intelectuals are of this “Cafateria Catholicism” verity, picking and choosing which traditions to follow and which are just archaic holdovers from a more superstitious time. Many are Nuns and Monks, trying to change the church from the inside.


David Mackinder 01.16.04 at 12:06 pm

I’ve just finished reading Parris’s book too, and agree with most of what you say (good to see someone else point out his aversion — or his copy editor’s? — to commas). Where I would disagree, slightly, is regarding what you perceive to be his anti-Catholicism. I think his aversion is to Christianity, of whatever variety — note his recollection of the encounter with the student on the train journey to Cambridge. My guess is that he’s a good atheist, and averse to religion of all kinds.


Nicholas Weininger 01.16.04 at 6:48 pm

Parris’s other writings, those I’ve read at least, would tend to confirm David Mackinder’s guess; he is very hard on irrationalism in general and sometimes derogates movements he dislikes by comparing them to religions. But he’s not nearly as militant about it as, say, Richard Dawkins.

I’m disappointed to see that, at least according to Amazon, there’s no American edition of _Chance Witness_ out. I love Parris’s columns; he strikes me as a generally careful, nuanced, humble thinker (his Iraq war-related writings are a particularly good example of this), which is a rare set of qualities in anyone who’se ever held political office.

Another fantastic political/personal memoir, from a perspective in some ways similar, is Vargas Llosa’s _A Fish in the Water_.


Jimmy Doyle 01.16.04 at 8:50 pm

Chris: I meant any relevant explanation for his steady stream of snide remarks specifically against catholics, as opposed to religioius enthusiasts in general.

Nicholas Weininger: when you say “[Parris] is very hard on irrationalism in general,” are you implying that all religion is a species of irrationalism? This would be news to Augustine, Aquinas, Isaac Newton and William James.


Backword Dave 01.17.04 at 1:05 pm

If I may attempt to answer Jimmy Doyle’s point, it depends on what you mean by rationalism. My kind of rationalism is based on empiricism — there are lots of things which are not a priori true, or necessarily true, they just happen to be so.
I think that all the people you named above would say that God transcends rationalism anyway, so religion for them is “sur-rational” — and based on faith. I don’t think that William James claims that religious experience is rational in the scientific/mathematical sense, ie reducible to certain propositions. And Newton was, a lot of the time, pretty daft.

Comments on this entry are closed.